Home Middle East & Turkey Middle East Saudi Arabia, an emerging sports power- Aamir Bilal

Saudi Arabia, an emerging sports power- Aamir Bilal

Saudi Arabia is learning fast to grow its economy beyond oil and use sports for social and economic development of the country. It is likely that Saudi Arabia under its young and energetic leadership will emerge as a powerhouse of sports by 2030.

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Aamir Bilal |

Historically, Saudi Arabia has played a limited role in international competitive sports. Apart from the interest in Saudi soccer clubs, there has been a minimal investment in Olympic sports and female participation in sports activities. In fact, Saudi Arabia has historically opposed advancements in athletics, these recent developments seemed to represent a significant change in the conservative nation’s policies and are considered to be a positive move towards promoting sports in the Kingdom. Youth and women of the country can find a more constructive means to harness their energies and use it in the process of nation-building. The Saudi Kingdom has realized the importance of sports as an instrument of development, a source of community mobilization and empowerment. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been investing in sports from as early as November 2016.

The government ordered the General Authority of Sports to create a Sports Development Fund, to augment sports activity in the country and provide financial assistance to sports clubs across the country. The objectives of the fund included an infusion of capital to build new facilities, contributions to the privatization of sports clubs, and efforts to attract and promote international sports events. With this aim in mind, the oil-rich Saudi Arabia now aims to add 40,000 new jobs to the economy by promoting sports as a human intensive industry.

The Saudi leadership must keep in mind that besides Kingdom’s resolve the leadership would require the services of sports sociologists, sports management and sports for development experts for running sustainable and well-meaning sport programs at the national level.

The man behind the country’s newfound interest in sports is Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who had yet to be elevated to Crown Prince when he commenced these changes in 2016. At the time, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, was just 31 years old and was the deputy crown prince, the defense minister, and president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs in Saudi Arabia. Prior to his decision to begin investing in Saudi sports, the young politician unveiled “Vision 2030,” a development plan that laid out a modern, technocratic future for Saudi Arabia in which the country has far less reliance on oil production.

Vision 2030 was unveiled in April 2016, and by November 2016 Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had turned his attention toward strengthening the education system, expanding participation in the workforce, and investing in the sports industry. As a result, the Saudi Arabian government has begun to host major sporting events previously never seen in the Gulf state.

Read more: Why Saudi Arabia allowed women into sports stadiums?

Saudi Vision 2030 represents Saudi Arabia’s plan not only to diversify its economy and address the challenges brought by low global energy prices but also to implement far reaching social and lifestyle changes. One of the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 is ‘creating a vibrant society with fulfilling lives’ through, amongst other things, ‘the promotion of physical and social well-being and healthy lifestyle’.

Saudi Vision 2030 acknowledges that opportunities for playing sports in Saudi Arabia have previously been limited and recognizes the importance of sports as part of a healthy lifestyle. Saudi Vision 2030 includes the aim of ‘encouraging widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities, working in partnership with the private sector to establish additional dedicated facilities and programs.

The objectives of the fund included an infusion of capital to build new facilities, contributions to the privatization of sports clubs, and efforts to attract and promote international sports events. With this aim in mind the oil rich Saudi Arabia now aims to add 40,000 new jobs to the economy by promoting sports as human intensive industry.

In May 2016, the General Presidency for Youth Welfare has reconfigured the General Authority for Sports, giving them enhanced responsibilities for licensing sports and sports clubs, and with responsibilities for the construction of sports facilities for clubs and the public.

In August, Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet announced the appointment of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud, a prominent Saudi Princess, as head of a new Department for Women’s Affairs at the General Authority for Sports. This has been widely seen as signaling potential greater female access to sports in the Kingdom, a country where women’s participation in sports has been relatively low.

Read more: Saudis probe woman TV presenter over ‘indecent’ dress

Following the appointment of Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al Saud in November 2016, the General Authority for Sports and the prestigious Princess Nora University in Riyadh, the largest women’s university, signed a memorandum of cooperation for the promotion of sports facilities with a view of promoting a healthy lifestyles by licensing women gyms and constructing exclusive safe play areas for women.

The general move to promote sporting activities and sports facilities, both at the community and national level, and developments such as the launch of the new sports fund and the apparently aligned privatization of the Saudi Professional League soccer clubs, are major developments which should give rise to significant opportunities for foreign companies involved in the sports sector.

Saudi Vision 2030 includes the aim of ‘encouraging widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities, working in partnership with the private sector to establish additional dedicated facilities and programs.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia hosted its first international motorsport event, the two-day Race of Champions (ROC). The event took place at the King Fahd International stadium in Riyadh, which has a capacity of 75,000 seats. ROC President Fredrik Johnsson explained the decision to host the event in Saudi Arabia by claiming the “forward-thinking” ROC is “an event perfectly suited to Saudi Arabia, which is emerging as a modern sports market on the global stage.”

Less than three months following the ROC, Saudi Arabia hosted its first international boxing event when the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) cruiserweight Final took place in Jeddah. The event, which was held in May 2018, served as the conclusion of the first season of the WBSS and the winner was presented with the inaugural Muhammad Ali trophy.

When Mohammed Bin Salman ascended to the role of Crown Prince in mid-2017, he began to cultivate a group of young members of the Al-Saud family and elevated them to positions of power to better serve his plans for the kingdom. One of the more publicized appointments was that of Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, who became the first female president of the Saudi Federation for Community Sports.

Read more: Saudi women’s fitness centre shut over ‘indecent’ video

The princess’ appointment came around the same time when women were allowed entry into soccer stadiums and a ruling that has allowed women to drive had passed. All of these changes fall under Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s plans for social and economic transformation in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government is well aware of the domestic benefits like inculcating life skills among the youth and international prestige that can be reaped from developing a strong sports culture, and are willing to go to unprecedented lengths to seize those benefits. The decision to invest in sports facilities shows the political will of country’s leadership and country’s awareness of the benefits of controlled social change, and the decision to host international events highlights Mohammed Bin Salman’s interest in using sports as a strategic instrument to enhance the country’s reputation on an international level.

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman appeared in public at the opening of Football World cup match against Russia, where his team lost 5-0, but the Crown Prince had more in his enlightened mind and he very wisely utilized the Football politics by engaging some fruitful discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the OPEC meeting.

The community and national level, and developments such as the launch of the new sports fund and the apparently aligned privatization of the Saudi Professional League soccer clubs, are major developments which should give rise to significant opportunities for foreign companies involved in the sports sector.

The Russian Federation has laid out the blueprint that Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is currently following. With Vladimir Putin at the helm of the affairs, Russia won the rights to host both the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the 2018 Football World Cup. Though with sanctions imposed by the United States and difficult economic circumstances following a recession in 2014, Russia’s World Cup, with a budget of $ 40 billion is the most expensive in the football history.

Read more: Saudi Arabia signs ten-year deal with WWE for pro-wrestling events

Despite the potential long-term consequences of such a risky investment in a single event, it is a cost Vladimir Putin was willing to pay to ensure his nation claims a spot for itself amongst the international elite. If Prince Muhammad Bin Salman’s plans for promoting sports come to fruition, Saudi Arabia might soon be counting itself among those countries whose international prestige provide much-needed cover for their authoritarian impulses.

Saudi Arabia is learning fast, to grow its economy beyond oil and use sports for social and economic development of the country. It is likely that Saudi Arabia under its young and energetic leadership will emerge as a powerhouse of sports by 2030 and provide a formidable answer to the Christian muscularity that uses sport to showcase its social and economic might by pitching educated and healthy Muslim athletes in international sports events. However, the Saudi leadership must keep in mind that besides Kingdom’s resolve the leadership would require the services of sports sociologists, sports management, and sports for development experts for running sustainable and well-meaning sports programs at the national level.

Aamir Bilal is an author, IOC Qualified Coach, and sports for development expert. He may be contacted at sdfsports@gmail.com. This article was first published in The News on Sunday magazine and has been republished here with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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