Home » Sport » Sport in the Middle East

Sport in the Middle East

Danyel Reiche and Tamir Sorek (Eds), Sport, Politics and Society in the Middle East, Hurst & Company (London), 2019, pp. 284.

There is a certain football manager who, when he fails to sign the range of players he would have liked, growls, “It is what it is” and gets on with managing what he’s got. Most editors of academic books will recognise the parallel: you have a subject, too big for a single author, and a list of ten ideal contributions on ten topics. But you only find five real fits and the rest are slightly out of position or duplicating each other and there’s always something completely missing. Like most of its kind this book is not to be judged by comparison with a perfect version of itself; it is in some respects a typical academic edited book and I sympathise having been there and done that.

A general theme is Al-Nahda, the idea of modernisation or awakening in Arab culture which puts sport generally in tension with more conservative tendencies, especially when it comes to women’s sport. Broadly, Qatar and Lebanon are slightly over-represented in this volume while Egypt and Syria are under-represented. But if the whole is unbalanced the parts contain a great deal of interest for both students of sport and students of the Middle East.

I was fascinated to read, for example, in Cem Tinaz’s account of Turkish sports policy that successive governments have duplicated the fallacy of UK (and other) sports policies which is the belief that if you foster elite sport and attract “mega-events” to the country you will thereby automatically benefit grass roots sport. It is an assumption wholly unjustified by the evidence. On the other hand the more money you spend on Olympic (as opposed to commercial) sport the more successful you will be. This is exemplified negatively here insofar as Lebanese expenditure is just about the lowest among comparable countries and the country has won four medals in seventy years.

There is also a pattern clearly illustrated here of Gulf states using sport to enhance their images and profiles as well as incorporating sport into projects of modernisation and preparation for a post-oil economy. Indeed, this is the aspect of the subject that most sports fans around the globe will know something about. The best known case is probably Qatar and Craig LaMay succeeds in demonstrating here that the strategy has backfired: before it was allocated the 2022 World Cup Qatar’s reputation was of being one of the most “advanced” of such states, but the subsequent publicity has exposed many unsavoury elements, not least the exploitative kafala labour system used to build facilities.

There are also two very interesting essays here about highly politicised football support; they are by Tamir Sorek on Israel and Dag Tuastad on Jordan and both illustrate the near-universal curiosity of the football stadium as a “permission zone” where the lords of misrule can operate as nowhere else. Thus the traditionally leftist fans of Harpoel Tel Aviv call the ultra-zionists of Maccabi Nazis while the Hashemite loyalists of Faisali call down the wrath of Israel on the Palestinians who support Wihdat. What is it about football?

Lincoln Allison September 2019

(This review appeared in Times Higher Education in January 2020.)