Sporting cities: Geopolitical encounters and elite sport initiatives in the Arabian Peninsula

By Natalie Koch
Submitted to Session P4824 (Politics, Space, and Subjectivity in the Arabian Peninsula, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
Gulf Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Can Gulf cities be considered “sporting cities”? Local boosters seem to think so and planners across the Arabian Peninsula are increasingly working to reshape their cities as sporting hubs and cater to a sports-oriented “visitor class.” This paper examines the wide-ranging mobilities and materialities that planners in the Gulf Arab states have drawn on to do so, focusing on an ethnographic case study of the UCI Road Cycling World Championships in Doha in October 2016. Through participant observation and interviews with athletes, officials, spectators, and local residents during the event, I consider the impacts of planning and tourism policies in the Arabian Peninsula.

In the past decade, planners across the region have actively promoted elite sport in their countries and, in turn, reshaped their cities as sporting hubs. In addition to promoting local tourist industries, hosting major sporting events also offers urban planners an opportunity to showcase their cities to the world through investing in iconic new venues and urban infrastructure. From impressive new Formula One tracks in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, to Qatar’s cutting-edge football stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the Gulf states’ rapid development is a key geopolitical trope used in promoting these events. Advancing globalized elite sport is thus an important means to broadcast an image of Gulf cities as cosmopolitan and modern. While regional leaders have also promoted more nationalistically-oriented sports, like falconry and camel racing, globalized elite sports are of special interest because their promotion in the Gulf relies almost exclusively on foreign players or participants. Spectators, too, are often short-term tourists or non-citizen expats.

Informed by research in political and urban geography, and taking the case of the UCI World Championships in Doha, this paper therefore asks: how is urban space transformed during the event, both materially and through the mobility of elite athletes and spectators? What images and identity narratives about Qatar generally, and Doha as a “sporting city,” do planners spotlight for the tourist’s gaze? And what are the broader political implications of shaping Gulf cities around the mobilities and materialities of elite sport? “Sporting cities,” I demonstrate, are key sites of geopolitical encounter: where subjects and spaces are not predetermined, but actively constituted through people’s differential movements in the pursuit of pleasure.