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Why are Qatar and the UAE not investing in their own leagues like they are in European leagues?

Mr James Cardona

Posted: December 17, 2017

In recent years, the world has witnessed colossal investment into European Football with much of it emanating from the Middle East. I set out to explore why the Arabs have not included their own leagues, namely the Qatar Stars League (QSL) and the Arabian Gulf League (AGL), in this regional soft power strategy. Neither of these two leagues garner much media attention in the UK and so, through a series of structured interviews with Gulf-based industry professionals, I set-out to shed some light on the situation.

The first major theme that emerged from my research was the significant absence of public interest in domestic football in Qatar and the UAE. This was aptly summed up by two participants in the study:

“Something that is detrimental to all leagues across Asia is the successful export of European football which erodes people’s interest in their local leagues. People would rather go to a café and watch Chelsea play in the Champions League than watch al Gharrafa play on a Tuesday night in Doha.”

“There has to be a realisation of what’s possible in those countries in terms of local football and the supremacy of the Premier League and La Liga.”

It could, therefore, be argued that the Qataris and Emiratis have become the masters of their domestic downfall through heavily financing football clubs in Europe. They have helped create a product in Europe of such high quality that it makes their own domestic product look even weaker and deters fan engagement.

One of the other participants in the study emphasised that:

“Even if both leagues were incredibly successful, the most they could hope for in terms of exposure on the international stage would be one of their clubs playing at the Club World Cup.”

This level of exposure simply cannot be compared to the likes of Manchester City or PSG winning the Champions League.

One of the main reasons for this is that both Qatar and the UAE are relatively small countries with populations of about nine million and two million respectively. Therefore:

“If they do develop their leagues, it will be very ‘small-scale’ and as we know both the leaders of the two countries, ‘small-scale doesn’t really interest them.”

Further to this, another participant highlighted that:

“The population is not big enough to support the existence of so many clubs. A small population and a league with too many clubs inevitably means less attendances.”

This season, the number of teams in both leagues was reduced from 14 to 12 and it will be interesting to see how the attendance figures alter as a result.

One way that attendances might be able to increase is if the leagues begin to recognise the importance of the expatriate communities in both countries. Nearly 90% of the UAE population is foreign, with Dubai also receiving over 13 million tourists last year alone. In a similar situation, only 10% of the Qatari population is ethnically Qatari.

Subsequently, when asked to name the strengths of the AGL, one participant immediately stated:

“The massive tourist market potential.”

Then, when asked about the league’s flaws, they responded:

“The failure to build club loyalties among expats and tourists.”

It seems to be a commonly-occurring theme within my research with other participants citing the lack of match-day marketing aimed at tourists and expats as a key issue driving the low attendances.

Tying this back to my research question – why are the Arabs not investing in their own leagues? – a participant summed the situation up:

“In simple words, why would private firms wish to invest in something that is evidently not popular with the public and promises nothing in return?”

In the past, however, the QSL committee attempted to pump money into the league to raise its international profile. All clubs were given $10M in 2003 and players such as Desailly and the De Boer brothers came to play in Qatar. Unfortunately, however:

“They paid a huge amount of money to get those players in and the national team slipped further down the rankings.”

By paying extortionate wages and large transfer fees, foreign playing talent was attracted to Qatar but this highlighted the neglect of local talent development. It is only recently that Qatar and the UAE have changed their attitudes to league football – they have begun to prioritise International football.

International football provides the global exposure that both Qatar and the UAE crave and the future World Cup on Qatari soil will be the biggest test of all for Qatar. Both Qatar and the UAE missed out on a place at Russia 2018 but, by hosting the tournament in 2022, Qatar have automatic qualification. The UAE must still qualify.

Qatar is currently ranked 97th in the world – behind the likes of the Cape Verde Islands, Benin and Palestine – and national attention has been diverted away from the QSL and towards creating a generation of domestic footballers capable of competing at a major tournament on the world stage. To do this, a vast talent-generating network has been created both domestically and abroad.

Qatar’s Aspire Academy, home of the world’s largest indoor sports dome and the capacity to host 13 simultaneous sporting events, actively seeks to scout and develop Qatari talent. State-of-the-art education, training, sports science and psychology are all part of the blueprint. Players are not only scouted in Qatar but also via sister-networks in Africa which aim at bringing in players young and re-nationalizing them after several years in Qatar. Of course, a player’s education does not end in an academy – league experience is crucial in a player’s development.

As a result, Qatar has established a system of lower level European football clubs which provides the academy graduates with an opportunity to improve as an alternative to the poor-quality Qatar Stars League. KAS Eupen in the Belgian Pro League and CyD Leonesa in Spain are Qatari owned and more than 10 Aspire graduates have already played for Eupen; five for Leonesa.

Ultimately:

“That must be the aim: to be valued for your football and not just for your money.”

Should it go ahead, the upcoming Gulf Cup of Nations, hosted by Qatar next month, will be a good indicator of just how far these nations have come in their national team development but, for now, the leagues remain somewhat neglected.

About James Cardona

James has recently completed a Sports Management Master’s degree in London having previously obtained an undergraduate degree in Arabic. To combine his two passions, much of James’ research has focused upon sport in the Middle East with specific emphasis on Qatar and the UAE. As a language student, he spent time in Amman, Jordan but now resides in London. Until recently, he worked extensively in the Horse Racing and Bloodstock world but is now seeking to apply his skills to sport in a broader context.