Sports in Middle East 'fastest growing in the world', survey finds

Sports in Middle East 'fastest growing in the world', survey finds
3 min read
07 February, 2021
New survey by consulting company listed the trends and possibilities for the sports market in the Middle East.
Sports in the Middle East will be "the fastest growing in the world" [Getty]
Sports in the Middle East will be "the fastest growing in the world over the next 3-5 years", despite the coronavirus pandemic, a new new survey published on Sunday by business group PwC Middle East found.

The first goal of the survey was to establish the short and long-term consequences of Covid-19 on the sports industry, then to highlight possible opportunities for the future.

"Beyond the challenges, we also highlight the opportunities resulting from the fact that the sports industry is expected to grow faster in our region than anywhere else in the world over the next three to five years," the survey said.

It has established three key areas able to adapt the sector to new realities: "digital transformation and the creation of digital assets, the growth of e-sports and ability of sports federations to capitalise on their popularity, and the transformational power of women’s sports within society".

In a video posted on PwC twitter account, the group said that the region continues to be competitive by hosting "elite events" such as Abu Dhabi and Bahrain Grand Prix, the Saudi Cup, Dubai Duty Free Tennis championship and Aramco Saudi Ladies International, among others.

Those events cover a wide range of sports with international fame and reach like soccer, Formula 1, car and motorcycle races, tennis, horse riding, gulf, rugby or even boxing.

Competitions with high international attention will be hosted in the years to come in the region, for example the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2030 Asian Games.

Among the key findings the survey highlighted, the most surprising one is an expected growth in the Middle East sports market by 8.7% over the next three to five years, while the global market is expected to grow annually at a 3.3% rate.

"The main differentiator for the Middle East is that regional governments are actively seeking to use sport as a way to diversify their economies away from natural resources and to build social cohesion," the survey explains.

"Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for example, have spent more than $65bn on sports development."

'Sportswashing' human rights abuses

For the Gulf countries, sports have become a way to express regional rivalries but also to gain international legitimacy.

For some, the focus on sports in countries such as Saudi Arabia is to be considered carefully.

"Under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is rolling out ever more entertainment and sporting events, an apparent attempt to 'sportswash' away its abusive rights reputation using large-scale events, with highly controlled environments, to show a progressive face of the kingdom," Human Rights Watch said in a 2019 statement.

"Barely one year after Saudi state agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi officials are racing to lock in hosting contracts with other major sports federations."

For Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, the term "sportswashing" is a bit too much, as he explained to Chronicle Fanack.

"If we take Saudi Arabia, [...] by investing in sports I don’t think the world thinks suddenly they are great countries," Chadwick said.

"Saudi Arabia, like its neighbours, is trying to acquire legitimacy and be part of the international community through sports.

"Their commitment towards the sports international community is like asking the diverse committees to forget their misdemeanours and focus more on the events, teams and sponsorship. It is a diplomatic tool."

Steering away from controversy, PwC survey recommended focusing on virtual entertainment, digital fan engagement and digitalised physical activity, as well as women’s sport, to "create a strong foundation of fans and players" in order to balance the losses inevitably rising from the pandemic.

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