How America Can Use Sports Diplomacy to Promote Human Rights in the Gulf
What do pet tigers, indoor ski resorts, and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo have in common?
Each have found their way to the Middle East in recent decades.
Gulf Arab countries bolster their image and prestige in various ways, and sports have become an increasingly important option. The recent announcement of Saudi Arabia’s sole bid for the 2034 World Cup has captured media attention, similar to the attention received by Qatar for successfully hosting of the 2022 World Cup and the merger between the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and Saudi-owned LIV Golf.
Gulf states’ aspirations to become global sports industry leaders are not new. Several English Premier League football clubs are under Saudi ownership, Qatar owns a 5 percent stake in DC-based sports teams, and Abu Dhabi is establishing itself as a “world capital for combat sports” in partnership with the mixed martial arts league UFC.
While Qatar paved the way for the Middle East in the World Cup, vocal concern over Qatar’s human rights record, particularly in regard to migrant worker rights, as well as a FIFA corruption scandal eclipsed this achievement even before the tournament began. Similarly spirited discussions highlighting the contradiction between awarding the 2034 World Cup to Saudi Arabia and FIFA’s 2017 pledge to uphold human rights and labor standards when selecting hosts are sure to catch fire soon.
Despite the negative connotations of so-called “sportswashing,” sporting events in Gulf states have brought their human rights violations “to the forefront of global awareness” and created international pressure for repressive governments to institute reforms. Not only that, hosting large international sporting events has also increased awareness within Gulf countries themselves regarding their “commitment to enacting legislation that respects human rights and prevents violations.” Although Gulf states intend to raise the profile of their countries with sports investments, moreover, their initiatives have often been criticized by fans and the international media.
Human rights aren’t improved through moralistic denunciations
If they want to improve human rights in the Gulf states, Western countries need a more pragmatic approach to human rights advocacy—not attacks on their efforts to increase their global prestige via sports.
Shaming these countries for “backwardness” and politicizing cultural practices often fuels backlash. When statements rooted in universalism, moralism, and legalism are issued, they inadvertently contribute to nationalist and populist rhetoric by political leaders—rhetoric that needs to be taken seriously. Figures like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, have all criticized the promotion of human rights as “a project of decadent, out-of-touch bullies” who push their agenda “to replace popular national self-determination with elitist, imperialist cosmopolitanism.”
Despite the increasing geopolitical conversation about Gulf states’ realignment towards these nationalist countries, the reality is that Gulf states remain fundamentally oriented toward the United States and Europe, especially when it comes to security, economics, and culture—including sports. While they primarily invest in the sports industry to generate revenue and integrate into the global economy, they are also motivated by the opportunity to enhance their international prestige, spur local national pride, and gain influence in important transnational business discussions. Gulf countries are projecting that an improved international reputation will lead to growth in economic diversification, tourism, and geopolitical power.
Western states need to utilize this link between global reputation and sports investment to strategically promote liberal values. Instead of relying on idealistic denunciations and moralistic rhetoric, they should strengthen local people’s capacity to fight for their own liberties. Historically, advances in human rights have not been catalyzed by foreign criticism but instead thanks to the “social power of those regimes’ subjects, who directly benefited from an expansion of rights.”
The surge of Gulf involvement in international sports events and in particular the expansion of the U.S. State Department’s Sports Diplomacy program presents an opportunity for these rising powers to unite.
The United States should tie sports diplomacy more closely to human rights
Sports organizations and human rights advocacy share several fundamental values and objectives, such as respect for opponents, playing by rules, and teamwork. Sports empower both players and spectators and have been used to facilitate development and peace projects after conflicts. International sports events have even provided platforms for protests against dictators on a global stage.
The State Department should welcome Gulf countries’ intention to compete in the international sports arena, viewing it as an opportunity to target U.S. sports diplomacy programs in countries with human rights issues.
To be most effective, the State Department’s $6 million sports diplomacy programs budget should be increased in order to fund more exchange programs that connect U.S. mentors and sports-based organizations with foreign leaders representing grassroots sports programs.
During inter-country sporting events, moreover, the United States should sign more humanitarian letters of intent with participating countries. During the fifth annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue in Doha, for instance, the two countries signed a letter of intent, declaring an intention to “advance and implement fair recruitment practices to protect migrant workers.” Although such letters of intent aren’t binding, they can create a basis for change in countries currently without them.
Another important tactic is for the United States to apply Title IX standards to international sporting events that receive substantial federal financial funding. While Title IX does not technically apply abroad, the State Department should stipulate adherence to its principles in its contracts. If, say, LeBron James became available for a youth basketball clinic in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, these Gulf countries would not likely pass the opportunity by even if the United States insisted that the youth participation equally reflect both sexes. Affecting change in youth through sports is a long-term investment America should make.
Forging a relationship between sports diplomacy and human rights in the Gulf countries is more likely than rhetorical criticism to advance human rights and liberal values in substance. Given the immense American influence in global sports culture, the United States is in a unique position to use one of its most popular exports, sports, to encourage human rights promotion and foster substantive change in the Gulf and around the world.
Clara Sherwood is a graduate student in international affairs at George Washington University and a Pathways Intern at the U.S. Department of State. She is a 2022-2023 Fulbright awardee to Morocco and a two-time recipient of the Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship in Arabic. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. government.