Can ‘sports diplomacy’ help the EU secure a ‘Green Deal’ alliance in the Middle East?


As the EU struggles to roll out its Green Deal across its 27 member states, it could be missing a trick: the potential to export its Green Deal innovations to the Middle East, where the solar, wind and storage potential is massive – and largely untapped.

One of the biggest opportunities lies in Saudi Arabia, whose Vision 2030 is challenging dated stereotypes about Riyadh. Vision 2030 is the kingdom’s bid to gradually leave the oil era behind, by transitioning to a robust renewable energy paradigm. By seeking to export its Green Deal innovations to Saudi Arabia, the EU could broker a new global partnership that could enthuse its own member states and usher in a bold new era of ecological trade.

Of course, the biggest challenge to this is the understandable concern over human rights and democracy. But as part of Vision 2030, the Kingdom is quietly but unmistakeably opening up through sports.

Vision 2030 is widely known as the Kingdom’s flagship drive to diversify its economy, reduce its dependence on oil exports, while simultaneously reducing its carbon emissions. As part of this diversification, Saudi Arabia hopes to develop a world-class multi-billion dollar sports industry which can attract international talent, investment and engagement in a way that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.

This year has seen Saudi Arabia announce a series of ground-breaking initiatives on sports that point to a vision of wide-ranging social and cultural transformation. The country earlier this year appointed its first national sports minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al Faisal, to oversee the drive.

In a recent interview, he explained that the push for women’s inclusion at all levels of games and sporting events, local and national, has been one of his major priorities.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia had zero female national teams. But now the first women’s football league is underway in Saudi Arabia, with 24 clubs competing nationally. Thirty-eight of the 64 sport federations in Saudi Arabia now have female board members to help facilitate women’s inclusion.

These reforms are of course still baby-steps. But they provide important points of entry for women into public life and a greater realization of gender equality, once again, that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. They come part and parcel of the Kingdom’s recent drive toward greater liberalisation. Though much room for progress remains, observers have noted that nearly 20 legislative changes over the last few year have ushered in significant improvements to women’s lives across a host of areas.

Many see this as the inevitable outcome of a broader cultural revolution in Saudi Arabia that continues to unfold with a new generation of young people entering more powerful positions in public life. But it is also part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s recognition that the only way to diversify the Saudi economy is to untap the economic potential of women, while opening up the economy to international investment.

“The expanding involvement of women in the sports area is very positive move and it proves that the government understands that women need positive role models in all areas of life in the country,” says Dr. T.J. Rosandich the President of the United States Sports Academy who spent nine years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia overseeing sport and recreation programs for various organizations and working as an advisor to various sports organizations.

Sports, of course, is a powerful mechanism to do this, offering new opportunities for cultural exchange as well as the potential to build a vibrant international industry. Saudi Arabia is keen to get stuck in. The Kingdom will also be hosting global sporting events such as Formula 1, and is enthusiastic about participating in the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosted in Qatar – a traditional rival.

The latter, in particular, demonstrates the often unrecognised potential for sports to act as a diplomatic bridge that can help tone down longstanding geopolitical tensions. The unprecedented cultural and economic opportunity offered by the FIFA World Cup means that both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are actively talking down tensions and paving the way for a more conciliatory and friendly approach – which in turn could underscore a new era of partnership for the two countries.

In the same vein, it is critical that the EU embraces the opportunity that cultural exchange through sports engagement can offer. Both Saudi Arabia and the EU have crucial shared commitments to a clean energy transition. And under Saudi’s Vision 2030, sports can offer a powerful meeting point for the two blocs that can facilitate a new era of mutual understanding, and a mechanism for them to partake in a shared cultural experience as Saudi Arabia continues to liberalise.

The crucial secondary impact of such ‘sports diplomacy’ is the bridge that can be built between the EU and Saudi Arabia to advance their deeper, shared economic goals. In the EU, this is encapsulated by the ‘Green Deal’.

The Kingdom can not only benefit from the EU’s support in diversifying its economy into sports, but also into a new renewable energy infrastructure – where EU expertise can play a huge role.

Cultural exchange can thus provide a foundation for a new EU-Saudi ‘Green Deal’ trade alliance exchanging IP, technology, and finance, all of which can play a further role in encouraging the human-to-human interactions that can help accelerate the Kingdom’s commitment to opening up.

I am a strong believer in the power of sports to bring people together. It can certainly do that for Europe and the Middle East – but both sides must be able to see that the dividends of doing so lie well beyond the domain of sports.

Jim Williams
Jim Williams
Jim Williams is a seven-time Emmy award winning journalist, most celebrated for his work in sports journalism. He has served as a game producer/director for telecasts of major sporting events, including Major League Baseball, the NBA, NHL, MLS, Pro Bowlers Tour, ATP as well as WTA, tennis, boxing, auto racing, and polo. Jim also founded The Politically Incorrect Podcast. Previous guests have included Florida Congressman Charlie Christ, Alan J. Steinberg who served in the Bush administration and Kamala Harris in addition to numerous other international political figures.


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