Oil Sheikhs of Combat Sports: What Does Bahrain Gain from Promoting Martial Arts?
2018-02-14 - 10:29 p
Bahrain Mirror: Gulf State monarchies have shown in recent years a growing interest in the proliferation of sports in their respective kingdoms, reports journalist Karim Zidan, pointing out how wealthy sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, have invested in various competitions, including the highly controversial 2022 World Cup - marred by reports of slave labour - and the Formula 1 Grand Prix. "Beyond these well-established and prestigious global sporting events, various ruling Houses in the Gulf have also fancied themselves as patrons of combat sports."
In a article published on bloodyelbow.com, the sports journalist highlights that since 1998, Arab monarchs have invested in combat sports largely ignored by their peers in the international community, adding that these controversial figures have bought their way into positions of influence in niche sports desperate for wealthy benefactors. "As a result, Middle Eastern oil tycoons have ironically become influential figures in this expanding industry - authoritarian regimes acting as philanthropists for violent sports."
Zidan goes on to say that while it is evidently clear how these regimes penetrated combat sports, the question remains: what do Arab monarchs in socially conservative societies have to gain from promoting niche sports like MMA?
He says that the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is one of the gulf states determined to become a significant player in the world of combat sports. In 2015, Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the fifth son of Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, began investing heavily in mixed martial arts. He financed the development of the Island nation's first fully-functional MMA fight club (KHK MMA), and founded Bahrain's first MMA promotion, Brave Combat Federation (Brave FC), the following year.
Zidan notes that Sheikh Khalid primarily serves as first lieutenant in Bahrain's Armed Forces but quickly became fascinated in the development of local sports. "Yet despite his down-to-earth image, Sheikh Khalid is a member of a monarchy that continues to commit shocking human rights violations, and even uses sports to distract from their violent domestic policies."
The sports journalist highlights that in 2011, waves of revolutionary protests crashed into unsuspecting regimes across the Arab world, and among the governments that faced civil discontent was Bahrain, whose Shia-Islam majority population had largely been oppressed by the centuries-old Sunni-monarchy. However, with the support of Saudi Arabia's military might, the Al Khalifa monarchy was able to suppress the uprising with the use of excessive force, forced disappearances, and well-documented torture tactics. "One of the men indicted of personally torturing Bahraini citizens was Sheikh Khaled's full brother, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa."
He further points out that in the six years that followed the Arab Spring, Bahrain's monarchy continued to oppress the vast majority of its population in an attempt to maintain control of the throne, noting that "with little hope of gaining Western-type legitimacy through government administration, the kingdom turned its attention to sports diplomacy and the many veiled benefits it offers wealthy despots."
"In order to fabricate an image of peace and prosperity within the island kingdom, Bahrain began to invest in sports as way to garner state prestige on an international stage. To date, Bahrain has used the Formula-1 Grand Prix event, the Olympic Games, cycling, and MMA in its plans to cement legitimacy and enhance their image abroad. Prestigious events like the F-1 race helped turn Bahrain from an unknown island into a tourist destination in the Middle East, while simultaneously distracting from ongoing human rights abuse."
Zidan explains that Sheikh Khalids's investment in MMA has also been a useful foreign policy tool for Bahrain's renewed relationship with the Russian Federation. Chechnya's military dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov, visited Bahrain in April 2017 as an official envoy from the Kremlin to enhance ties with the Middle Eastern monarchy.
Concluding his article, Karim Zidan stresses that the proliferation of monarchs influencing combat sports sheds light on a variety of concerns, stating that it is evidently clear that sports, even violent ones like MMA, can be politicized and perverted for the benefit of despots, tyrants, and military rulers looking to cement their authority and enhance their tattered images abroad.
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