Sport in the Gulf Countries: Naturalize to Win

To put together winning national teams, the Gulf countries naturalise young foreigners. This common practice is looked upon with a jaundiced eye by the international bodies.

On 1 February 2019 in Abu Dhabi, Bassem Al-Rawi, the young captain of the Qatari selection held aloft the victory trophy won by his team in the 17th AFC Asian Cup. An event such as this, which saw the Qatari team rise to the highest international level, is perceived in that country as in its Gulf neighbours as a way of federating its youth confronted with the challenges of globalisation.

Under the globalised economy, a new generation of leaders in the Arabian Peninsula have come to realize that it will no longer suffice to rely solely on their hydrocarbon wealth. In order to take their place among the world powers, they must begin by galvanising societies weighed down by the welfare state and which have become generally lazy with little inclination for sport. The object is also to rally the nation’s youth around a national goal such as an athletic competition and to seek benefits on the international scene.

With this in view, national leaders have made sport one of the mainstays of their policies, and strive to enable their countries to vie with the world’s best teams. Which is why they must recruit their future champions in the margins of their societies, mainly comprising Bidoon,1 foreigners or immigrant labourers. Thus the sport’s authorities have no choice but to naturalise young men in order to induct these champions or future champions into their national teams. In an international sporting world, largely constituted during the twentieth century around the notion of nationality, a symbol of the one-time domination of Europe, these practices are criticized whenever the issue of sport in the Gulf countries is raised.

Moreover, in these underpopulated countries where nationality is normally transmitted by the father, few young nationals opt for the chancy career of high-level athletes. In Doha, for example, many young Qataris, scouted and coached by the recruiters of the Aspire Academy, give up around the age of seventeen their dream of becoming football champions and turn their hopes towards a less risky future. They go in for higher learning instead, often abroad, or else they join their father’s company which ensures them higher wages and demands far fewer sacrifices, besides.

Qatar’s neighbours are critical, but do the same

For young people in the outer reaches of society, often from expatriate foreign families, sport opens up unprecedented possibilities. These may in turn lead to acquiring the nationality of their host country, which will enable them to benefit from the same rights as national citizens as well as upward mobility. The composition of the Qatari team that won the AFC Asian Cup in February 2019 illustrates this social reality. Al-Moez Ali was born in Khartum (Sudan) and arrived as a child in Qatar with his parents; Akrim Afif Al-Yefai was born in Doha, his father is a Tanzanian football player naturalised Qatari and his mother a native of Yemen; Abdelkarim Hassan, named best Asian player of the year in 2018, was also born in Doha of a Sudanese family. All three received their training at the Aspire Academy, as did the team’s young captain,Bassem Al-Rawi, of Iraki descent, whose father, a football player, was once a member of the Iraki national team. We might also mention the Malian Assim Madibo, the Egyptian Ahmed Alaa Al-Din, or the former “best young Asian player of the year,” Ahmed Moein Doozanbeh, who also attest to this phenomenon.

Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have criticized this Qatari policy of naturalisation, their athletic authorities apply exactly the same one. Ismail Matar, the Emirati football star, is of Omani origin. His father played football with the local club in Sour, and emigrated in the seventies to Abu Dhabi at the time of its economic boom. Ali Mabkhout, Ismail Al-Hammadi and Omar Abdulrahman Al-Amoudi who play with that same national selection come from Yemeni families. The case of the last-named player is especially interesting. Born in Riyadh in a very underprivileged family from South Yemen, he was a young boy when he joined the famous Alhilal club in the Saudi capital, where his talents were seen to be exceptional. Al-Hilal wanted to have their player naturalised but his family objected. So the Abu Dhabi club Al-Aïn in the UAE offered the young player a contract and naturalisation for both himself and his family. Today Emirati fans place all their hopes in Omar Abdulrahman Al-Amoudi.

Sidestepping the FIFA’s rules

It also happens that the Gulf countries recruit foreign athletes in training or who have already begun their career by tempting them with considerably higher salaries than they can expect from European clubs in the lower divisions as well as optimal material conditions to develop their competitive capacities. This is very often how the Qatar operates and to a lesser extent the UAE and Bahrein.

After the turn of the century, Qatar and the UAE envisaged naturalising Latin-American players who have excelled in the major European competitions but have never had a chance to play with their national selection on account of the stiff competition from all the gifted players among their compatriots. Faced with these temptations, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) changed its rules concerning the naturalisation of athletes. Qatar then set about getting around the new norms by recruiting players of lesser standing to play in the clubs of their various leagues. Living or having lived on Qatari territory for a period of five years, they became eligible for naturalisation, join the national selection and improve its quality. However, the frequent defeats encountered by that team of mercenaries ultimately drew criticism from within the emirate itself, notably during debates organised on the Qatari sports channel, Al-Kass. Today however, the work accomplished by the Aspire Academy, together with the confirmation of the improved talent of certain players in the national leagues, have prompted the emirate to change its strategy. At present, only three players on the national team remain from the previous period: Pedro Miguel, Karim Boudiaf and Boualem Khouki. The AEU and the Bahrain are now naturalising players in the same way, although on a smaller scale.

In other sports as well

However, this policy of recruiting foreign athletes is still maintained in Qatar for other sports, in particular track and field as well as handball. The same holds true for Bahrain and the UAE where, as in all the Gulf countries, the athletic activities of the average citizen are minimal, which scarcely contributes to the development of sport on a national scale.

In track and field, after the year 2000, athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia began to arrive, as well as Nigerian sprinters. The latter were attracted by the possibility of obtaining better financial conditions than were possible at home. In their own countries, moreover, the competition is very stiff and those who left for the Gulf hoped to have a better chance of competing in prestigious international events. Thus with Stephen Sherano, now Saif Said Shahin, a long-distance runner who won for Qatar its first gold medal in a World Championships. In 2016 it was Bahrain’s turn to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio thanks to the marathon runner of Kenyan origin, Ruth Jebet, while her compatriot, Eunice Kirwa came in second bearing the same colours. The previous year, in the 2015 World Handball Championships, held in Doha, Qatar entered a surprisingly multinational team comprised of players naturalised for brief periods of time and took a second place which was the object of many polemics.

Lifetime nationality or a million dollars

In that emirate, the policy remains intact. When the national selection plays a match, the main language spoken between players is not Arabic but English. For these top-level athletes, taking part in matches under the colours of a country which is not their own, is simply the fulfillment of a working contract. The country which has recourse to their services is acting as their employer. A form of contract labour which may seem to make these athletes mercenaries of a sort. Often, they are deprived of their new passports outside the periods of competition or once their contract is terminated, but in the event of a podium, they may be rewarded with lifetime naturalisation. Such was the case with the members of the Qatar handball team who, after winning the silver medal at the 20i5 World Championships, had a choice between two types of reward; either a million dollars or permanent Qatari nationality.

Finally, between the Gulf states themselves, there are instances of athletes from Kuwait or Bahrain who decide to change countries for reasons which are often political. Because of the material and financial opportunities Qatar can provide in the area of sport, the emirate is often seen as a way out for these athletes, with the added hope of joining one of its national teams.

The athletes from Kuwait are often bidoon. In which case sports becomes an opportunity to obtain citizenship. Athletes from Bahrain who try their luck in Qatar generally come from the Shiite communities of the archipelago. Such was the case with Ali Asad Allah who plays with the Al-Saad club in Doha and has often played with the Qatari national selection. He was trained in a club representing the Bahraini city of Al-Muharraq but in 2010 decided to change nationality by pledging allegiance to the Al-Tahnis, the reigning family of Qatar.

Jus sanguinis, jus soli

The national teams of these Gulf countries are reflections of their societies: they are cosmopolitan. Thus these foreign athletes come to create the athletic reality of the countries in question. Hosting more international competitions than its neighbours, Bahrain or the UAE, Qatar must quickly make sure it will be among the competing nations. Instant naturalisation consequently seems a way of combining athletic excellence with the role of host.

Outside of the Gulf countries, this issue is generally viewed in terms of the “universal” acceptance of the concept of nationality, associating jus sanguinis and jus soli. If in those countries, the fact of being born on the national territory were to be added to the transmission of nationality through the father, there would no doubt be fewer instances of naturalisation. The children of expatriate workers could represent the country of their birth in international competitions. The Serbian swimmer Velemir Stjenovic, born in Abu Dhabi, would then perhaps have been able to compete in the Rio Olympics under the Emirati colours.

However, in most of those countries the jus soli is in fact granted children whose parents are from a so-called “Arab” country, either born in their new country or having arrived at an early age. It is enough to have lived there for some years, especially when they can contribute to the national community with some particular qualification, such as athletic prowess. But then mentalities in the Gulf states change apace with economic factors. The diminution of the welfare state in some of these countries, such as Oman or Saudi Arabia, has induced more and more young people to look upon an athletic career as a way of maintaining a comfortable way of life.

1The Bidoon are long-term residents of this or that emirate. They are stateless, have neither the status of citizen or foreigner. They have no civil rights and for the most part originate in the Bedouin population.