The Etihad fly-past marked the beginning of the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Island in December 2020.
The Etihad fly-past marked the beginning of the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Island Image Credit: AFP

The UAE has established itself as a global hub for sports and hosted several high-profile sports events, including the Dubai World Cup, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and Dubai Rugby Sevens.

These events have helped to boost the country’s tourism industry and raise its international profile, but they have also been an effective tool in the realm of public diplomacy called sports diplomacy, which has become an increasingly important aspect of the UAE’s foreign policy.

Whereas traditional diplomacy involves government actors and diplomats negotiating treaties and agreements, sports diplomacy involves non-official actors, such as teams, athletes, and fans, who come together to celebrate athletics.

The most prominent examples of sports diplomacy are large international events such as the Olympic Games or the World Cup, but smaller competitions can also be effective avenues. The UAE’s approach to pursuing sports diplomacy, for example, differs somewhat from other countries.

Faster, higher, stronger: The original soft power

The use of sports diplomacy has a long history, dating back to the ancient Olympic Games, which were held in Greece to promote peace and unity among the participating city-states.

One of the most prominent examples of sports diplomacy in recent years was the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where North and South Korean athletes marched under a unified flag during the opening ceremony, signalling a potential thaw in relations between the two countries.

SPO Dubai Rugby sevens FILE-1668020079695
Rosko Specman from South Africa playing against players from New Zealand, during the finals of Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens (File)

More recently the World Cup 2022 in Qatar served as a platform for international leaders to meet and engage in diplomatic dialogue. Athletic events can be a good opportunity for such informal meetings between political leaders, especially for multilateral discussions, and can be used as an outreach to the international community or to strengthen relations between specific countries.

Sport events can also provide insights into the host country’s infrastructure, attractions, and culture, thus benefiting the host nation in many ways, including encouraging tourism and foreign investment. They can also create a legacy for the host country by improving its image and showcasing its institutional and organisational strengths.

While sports diplomacy can facilitate positive outcomes, it alone cannot guarantee lasting and substantive diplomatic progress. It serves as a complementary tool in a broader diplomatic strategy. The impact of sports diplomacy initiatives may not be long-lasting, and its benefits may fade over time.

A prime example of how mega sports events have not been able to sustain the idea of diplomacy is the 1972 Summer Olympics held in Munich. The games were intended to promote international cooperation and to showcase Germany’s post-war reconstruction and democracy.

However, the Games were tragically marred by an attack by a Palestinian terrorist group that resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. The incident shocked the world and highlighted the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, undermining the event’s diplomatic goals.

Sports diplomacy initiatives can be expensive and logistically challenging to organise, particularly in countries that lack the necessary resources or infrastructure. Furthermore, the commercialisation of sports can undermine the positive effects of sports diplomacy by prioritising corporate interests over public diplomacy objectives.

Many Olympic sports sites, for example, end up underutilised, abandoned or repurposed for other uses after the Games are over. The cost of maintaining and operating these facilities often outweighs their benefits, especially if they were built for a specific event or purpose and do not have a long-term use. The baseball stadium constructed for the 2004 Olympics, for example, stood in ruins only 10 years later and was eventually used to house Syrian refugees in 2018.

A squad of 26 Emiratis are practising five hours each day at Abu Dhabi's Jiu Jitsu Arena
A squad of 26 Emiratis are practising five hours each day at Abu Dhabi's Jiu Jitsu Arena Image Credit: Supplied

Sports as a showcase for the GCC

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region share a passion for sports and are strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa, so sports diplomacy has been a natural fit in their government’s foreign policy toolkit. The football World Cup in 2022, for example, was an opportunity for Qatar to showcase its capabilities and to improve its international reputation by promoting understanding between countries.

The UAE’s approach has been to diversify beyond traditional sports such as football and cricket into more niche sports such as golf, horse racing, and motorsports. This has enabled the country to tap into new markets and audiences, and to demonstrate its ability to host a range of sporting events.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Abu Dhabi hosted the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s “Fight Island” series on Yas Island. At a time when almost all international sporting events were cancelled or postponed, Abu Dhabi demonstrated its resilience by coordinating these shows, which were then broadcast to a global audience, for many of whom Fight Island was an introduction to the region.

Significant investment in world-class stadiums and facilities has enabled the UAE to establish itself as a hub for sports tourism in the region. The Yas Marina Circuit alone cost approximately $1.3 billion to build in 2008 and is the most-expensive F1 track in the world. The UAE has also invested in sports academies and training facilities to develop its own athletes and teams, particularly in football.

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The UAE has also leveraged its global influence and financial resources to attract high-profile sports celebrities and teams to the country.

This includes partnerships with legends such as Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi, and ownership stakes in high-profile football clubs, such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.

Increasingly the UAE has tried to compete with traditional winter training destinations with local companies providing exclusive travel and accommodation packages for teams and individual athletes.

An important part of the UAE’s sports diplomacy strategy has been the promotion of gender equality in sports. This includes initiatives such as the UAE Women’s Football League, the Abu Dhabi Women’s Run, and the Dubai Women’s Cycling Tour, which have helped to create new opportunities for women in sports and challenge gender stereotypes in the region.

The UAE women’s national ice hockey team visited Washington D.C. February 2018 and were guests of honour at a Washington Capitals game. The event was coordinated by the UAE Embassy in conjunction with the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone month” to celebrate the game’s growing diversity around the world.

The Brazilian connection

In 2008, jiu-jitsu was declared the country’s national sport, and by 2016, 130 schools were teaching jiu-jitsu, with over 76,000 students enrolled. The sport of jiu-jitsu now has significant cultural and sporting importance in the UAE, and is an example of the UAE’s unique approach to sports diplomacy.

The UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation raises awareness of the sport and envisions the country as the premier venue for jiu-jitsu. The governing body also created the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Jiu-Jitsu Tour, the sport’s most well-known tournament, in 2015, and a community of some of the world’s best grapplers train and compete in the UAE. Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed funds many of these initiatives and is an active practitioner and black belt of the sport.

The ties the UAE has built with Brazil through the sport no doubt have strengthened political ties, as evidenced by the warm reception Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva received when he visited Abu Dhabi on April 15, 2023.

Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow and Director of the International Security & Terrorism Program at TRENDS Research & Advisory, Dubai. Rahaf Al Khazraji is an Emirati Researcher at Trends Research & Advisory in Abu Dhabi.