Grand Investments Spurring Interest and Propelling Star Athletes in MENA

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The Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) hasn’t exactly been able to plant its flag in the global scene of the most popular sports, with the primary exceptions being soccer players from North African nations. Still, the region is increasingly becoming a hotbed for sports, both nationally and by way of international competitions.
In turn, more and more star athletes are emerging from MENA, competing on the world stage, marking new milestones for people from the region, and spurring further sporting participation. Here, we’re looking at how MENA is forcing its way into the global sports scene, as well as the top stars who have become the faces of MENA sports.

Bringing the biggest sports to the region

The MENA region isn’t exactly what you’d label as being rich in sporting history, with Egypt being the main exception to the rule. It wasn’t long ago that much of the region – particularly on the Middle Eastern side – was devoid of international-standard sporting venues. Now, the infrastructure is there, and the money’s being pumped into the industry. So, many nations of the region have been able to bring headline sports competitions to them rather than go down the more organic route of waiting for the grassroots investment to forge top-class competitions.
Regardless, international sporting events have been more than happy to bring their product to MENA. One of the most notable in recent years was the Indian Premier League. The colossal cricket competition couldn’t compete in India in 2020, so the UAE staged the competition for them in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. Not only did it pump $24.5 million into the local economy, according to Republic World, but it also showcased the world-class cricket facilities of the country. In 2021, the IPL decided to finish another season in the UAE. Of course, the biggest competition in world sports, the World Cup, is coming to Qatar following its $6.5 billion infrastructure investment.

Along with the world-leading sports of soccer and cricket, big-money events have also arrived in MENA, spurring interest in the diverse world of sports. On the 2022 calendar of Formula One, all of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are penciled in to host lavish Grand Prix events, with the Middle Eastern nations bookending the calendar. It’s been reported that the Kingdom’s deal with F1 comes to $650 million over its ten-year run.

Towards the end of 2019, the Clash On The Dunes saw Anthony Joshua battle Andy Ruiz Jr to reclaim his three world heavyweight title straps in Saudi Arabia, which was broadcast back to his home country by Sky Sports Box Office. It’s because of these kinds of major events being drawn into the area that local betting vendors and directories are springing up seemingly overnight and achieving great success with avid online bettors.

For example, directories like Arabian Betting list the most popular sports within the region including boxing, Formula One, soccer, and cricket. These are alongside the likes of more niche markets like camel, greyhound, and horse racing. Betting is a popular side activity to sports, and the fact that the best sites now offer betting specifically to Arabic audiences shows that investing in major events has spurred interest. With methods to bet safely and anonymously available, it’s not a surprise that interest in international sports betting is high.

One of the biggest names capitalizing on all of this sporting action and interest in MENA is beIN Sports. The sports platform has snapped up a great many broadcast rights over the last decade, including for a flurry of motorsports, the NBA, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, La Liga, Arab Cup, Ligue 1, Tennis Grand Slams, and they even paid $500 million to retain Premier League rights through to 2025.

Sporting heroes emerging from MENA

While many of the current top stars from the MENA region began their journeys before various nations began investing heavily in sports, they are now the faces of athletic prowess in their home countries. Easily the most prominent among them right now is Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian winger has become an international soccer hero, being a core component in Liverpool’s resurgence to title contention in the Premier League. Alongside him in the UK is Riyad Mahrez from Algeria, who famously won the title with Leicester City and then found further success in the Manchester City ranks.

Soccer never fails to produce stars from somewhat unassuming parts of the world simply because the sport is the biggest and most popular in the world. Nations of the Middle East have also been able to prove themselves as competitive in the international scene, with Iran and recently Qatar performing well – the latter known for recently winning the Asian Cup in a valiant underdog story. Within soccer, you can also look to Sarah Essam. She became the first Arabic female to play soccer in England at 22-years-old and did so while also getting a degree.

Away from soccer, MENA nations also have several other sporting heroes laying the foundations for what’s hopefully even more top talent to emerge from the region. In athletics, there’s Syria’s refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, Egyptian weightlifter Sana Ahmed, and Paralympics powerlifter Mohammed Khamis Khalaf of the UAE. Emirati Zahra Lari also became the first figure skater to compete in a hijab. In the NBA, and most recently playing for the Phoenix Suns basketball franchise, Egyptian-born Abdel Nader managed to get picked in the second round of the 2016 entry draft, also playing for the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Intrigue in the vast world of sports is continually increasing across the MENA region, with legends of the future now making a name for themselves and nations pumping cash into getting the biggest events. With the World Cup in Qatar this year, it’s inevitable that even more star athletes will emerge in the years to come.