Authors: Adam Dempsey and Khristo Ayad*
India’s worsening COVID-19 crisis could yet result in this year’s T20 Cricket World Cup being moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).The call makes sense. Last year, the UAE stepped in to host the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s leading T20 cricket tournament, and has been mooted as a venue for completing this year’s now-suspended competition. Until recently, Pakistan also played its home cricket matches in the Gulf state, and Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven Emirates, organized its own international one-day competition. Put simply, the UAE has the experience, infrastructure and fanbase to make it a worthy alternative.
The UAE however is by no means the only Gulf state imaginable to come to India’s aid should it have to pull out of hosting T20 World Cup 2021, with its near-neighbors offering similarly high-quality sporting facilities and enthusiasm for the sport. The regional fabric in turn provides food-for-thought regarding the theoretical sharing of such opportunities, even if the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) remains an unlikely candidate, not just in light of the now concluded diplomatic crisis and blockade of Qatar. Doing so also justifies a look back at the deep commonalities that were more obvious before the rift.
As a result of the country gearing up for the FIFA World Cup 2022, Qatar offers facilities and infrastructure that can easily host T20 Cricket World Cup matches as well. Possible concerns over disruption to planning for next year’s event could be alleviated by allocating games to smaller venues such as the Al-Gharrafa stadium. Bahrain’s National Stadium, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Sports Complex, as well as Saudi Arabia’s (KSA) King Abdullah Sports City could likewise be reconfigured for cricket.
While the UAE is more than capable of staging T20 World Cup 2021 on its own, a regionally-dispersed tournament could reduce organizing costs, bureaucratic obstacles, and likely generate greater commercial interest. It might also appeal to cricket’s governing bodies and their ambitions to grow the global footprint of the game. Last but not least, collaborative initiatives of this kind could boost the hosts’ and entire region’s image and reputation.
Global sporting events also represent opportunities for soft power diplomacy. Soft power is, in short, the conception of a nation’s international standing through the power of attraction rather than coercion. Recognizing that stability also lies in a brand name, cultivating soft power assets has long been a key element most notably in the UAE’s and Qatar’s foreign affairs. While Kuwait and Oman opted for subtler approaches, and KSA only recently assumed comparable policies, Doha, and for the UAE particularly Dubai, have engaged in determined development, nation-branding and global PR campaigns since the nineties. Updated regulatory frameworks, opening up for international business and tourism, infrastructural development, and the hosting of high-visibility events have consistently been proof points for both states’ transformation into modern, dynamic hubs of enterprise and opportunities.
The results have brought sizeable Foreign Direct Investment and a previously unseen influx of visitors and expatriates from all over the world. Preceding the onset of the GCC spat in 2017, and certainly before the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Qatar and the UAE were widely regarded as the two most forward-facing Arab nations, a new ‘Orientopia’ contesting the perception of a notoriously closed and troubled region.
This positioning also inspired other Gulf populations to reorient themselves closer to home. Visa-free entry for GCC nationals and the availability of world-class leisure, education and medical facilities in the region reduced the need for long-distance journeys to Europe or North America. In 2015, the Arab Youth Survey saw the UAE and Qatar ranked first and fifth among the top five countries to live in. Prior to this, both were consistently ranked among the top five Arab states to emulate.
Mutual soft power also derived from local populations’ similar experiences and identification with their leaderships. These societies went through the same challenges evoked by their states’ hyperdevelopment, a long-term test that KSA is still to face. The gradual shift from tribal to urban citizenry, embedded in an extremely diverse international population, came with complex societal changes for Qatari and Emirati communities alike. Both governments have had to prepare their citizens for the less cushioned reality of a post-carbon future and its implications for social and economic policymaking.
While reforms in the Gulf are often seen as slow from a Western perspective, discourse has nevertheless continued in the UAE and Qatar, where changes to traditional structures require much more delicate internal explanation and negotiation. Both leaderships have indeed consistently opted for the controversies coming with elevated visibility, eventually achieving broad citizen support for the shift to diversified economies and modernization.
The idea of actively sharing soft power assets in common regional interest is not as peculiar as it may seem, particularly in the post-crisis GCC. Looking at Scandinavia, for example, increased attractiveness for one country increases attraction for the other. These countries apply individual national communications strategies on the one hand, yet advance common foreign policy objectives through cooperation on the other. In other words, their soft power is mutually reinforcing. The EU National Institutes for Culture(EUNIC) exemplifies overarching European soft power by leaning on cultural collaboration as a binding element between member-states and the rest of the world. Elsewhere, the Latin American Trade & Investment Association (LATIA) unites nineteen countries in promoting their region, and an Arab soft power platform was created by the Kennedy Centre’s ‘Arabesque Festival’ in cooperation with the League of Arab States in 2009. In sports, South Korea and Japan together delivered a very successful FIFA World Cup 2002. Poland and Ukraine achieved the same with the UEFA European Championship in 2012, and 2026 will see the FIFA tournament spread between Mexico, the US and Canada.
It goes without saying that India will ideally keep the T20 Cricket World Cup on home soil. However, nowhere is more suitable to recreate the sights, sounds and atmosphere of this competition than the Arabian Peninsula, where Friday mornings witness an explosion of informal cricket matches between teams of expatriates from the Indian subcontinent. Removed from the glitz and glamour of the star-studded IPL, these matches also reflect the Gulf’s typical population, including a majority from a part of the world where cricket is a way of life. A GCC tournament would surely not be without obstacles, but it may facilitate some unexpected, and welcome effects. Crucially, a joint tournament may facilitate a more relaxed and convivial approach to GCC dialogue that has been noticeably absent in recent years.
*Khristo Ayad is a strategic communications consultant and public diplomacy analyst based in Qatar. His focus lies on the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as soft power diplomacy in wider contexts, including the European Union. He has held several senior positions at global consultancy firms in the Arabian Gulf region, where he provided strategic counsel to multiple key organizations in the government, semi-government, and private sectors. He holds an MA in Diplomatic Studies from the University of Leicester.