Alan Hubbard

My insidethegames colleague David Owen was bang on the button when he suggested here last week that a major beneficiary of the war in Ukraine could be the Middle East.

Vladimir Putin’s illegal evil invasion is, for various reasons why the Western economy is rapidly sliding downhill, while that of the Gulf States is not only flourishing but burgeoning.

As a result the portents are that most European nations - and even the US - may no longer be able to stage costly mega sports events, leaving the Middle East in pole position to become the epicentre of world sport.

Ambition, like petrodollars seems to have no limit in places such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai. There splashing the cash has become a whole new ball game in this sporting Arab Spring.

This was recently evidenced by the staging of the return world heavyweight title fight between the peerless Ukrainian champion Oleksandr Usyk and Britain’s Anthony Joshua in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

It was the latest of a growing number of huge sports events to be hosted by the Saudis in what appears to be a blatant attempt to camouflage the inequities of that repressive regime, which brutally murders dissident journalists, has executed 81 men and women in a single day by chopping off their heads and, despite claims about the new empowerment of women, has imprisoned a British educated female student in a dark, dank desert jail for the next 34 years. 

Her crime? Expressing mild criticism of the Saudi‘s despotic system via Twitter.

All this of course, was conveniently swept under a multimillion dollar carpet of respectability when, for the second successive time, Joshua was defeated by his fellow Olympic champion.

The former world title holder then went off on a rambling rant, disdainfully tossing Usyk’s belts out of the ring in a fit of pique and frustration that cost him a lot of respect, yet the reverse would’ve been the case had he instead spoken out about the host country’s flagrant abuse of human rights.

But of course he was paid very handsomely to stay shtum and be part of Saudi Arabia’s "sportswashing" drive towards an image makeover.

The same can be said of another British sports superstar, David Beckham who has trousered some £10 million ($11.5 million/€11.6 million) for becoming the talisman for football’s World Cup which is due to kick off shortly in another rolling-in-it desert kingdom, Qatar. 

Saudi Arabia's most recent major sporting event was the world heavyweight title fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua ©Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's most recent major sporting event was the world heavyweight title fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua ©Getty Images

It is said that Beckham has been "astonished" by criticism from Amnesty International of his fronting video in which he extols the delights of this tiny Middle Eastern outpost as a tourist resort. It is, he says it "an incredible place - perfection."

He added: "I’m very honoured to have the tag of a gay icon. Being gay is cool."

For while Qatar may be marginally more enlightened than its one-time foe on the other side of the Sahara, it still has human rights issues, such as the alleged mistreatment of poorly paid migrant workers drafted in to help construct the various state of the art stadiums (thousands are reported to have died under what has been described as "slave labour" conditions).

Moreover, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar criminalises homosexuality. There, any citizen involved in a same sex relationship faces lengthy imprisonment, flogging or even death by firing squad.

Surely this must sit uneasily on the conscience of "golden balls" Beckham, who says he enjoys being a gay icon with many gay friends including Elton John. Although, of course he is 100 per cent "straight" himself, Beckham has appeared on the cover of a gay magazine and told the BBC: "I think it’s cool people are gay."

The football world still shakes his head in disbelief that a minute desert nation then ranked 146th in the international game should have snaffled the 2022 World Cup a decade ago from sporting superpowers including England. 

There were widespread allegations of shedloads of cash being shovelled in the direction of FIFA, at the time the most corrupt governing body in sport. 

Naturally this continues to be vehemently denied by Qatar, which has bid for the last two Olympics and says it will keep on doing so until it finally lands them.

In acquiring the World Cup was indeed a shock of seismic proportions and in doing so Qatar of telling a lie of Boris Johnson portions.

The bidding team promised that the tournament would be held in June and July so as not to disrupt the European season. But subsequently this was changed to November and December when, they claimed, it would be cooler.

The Olympic and Sports Museum opened its doors in Doha earlier this year, and features an exhibition looking at ancient and modern aspects of the Olympic Games ©Getty Images
The Olympic and Sports Museum opened its doors in Doha earlier this year, and features an exhibition looking at ancient and modern aspects of the Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Talking of being cool, one of the criticisms of holding the tournament on a small peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf is the sweltering heat, which can top 40C even in the winter months. However we are assured that hi-tech air conditioning will keep both spectators and fans cool, reducing the temperature to a more comfortable 20C.

Certainly when I watched a match at the capital Doha‘s Jasim bin Hamed Stadium I felt air con blowing up from beneath the seats. Which made it distinctly chilly around the nether regions!

What else about Qatar? Well, it has the world's best airline and English is widely spoken (it was a British protectorate until 1971) and the food is eclectic and very good. If you fancy a half-time hotdog it will be beef rather than pork as it is an Islamic country. It might even be camel. I've tasted worse.

I recommend a visit to a remarkable sporting project, the Olympic and Sports Museum as there isn’t a lot to do in Qatar. There are beaches but no bikinis or boozers. Copacabana it isn’t. 

Qatar anticipates a million fans from around the world but they should be warned that, as in Saudi Arabia, alcohol is banned save in the luxury hotels occupied by FIFA bigwigs.

At least there should be no lager loutishness. Anyone swigging from a can of duty free Carling faces up to three years in prison.

But I do recommend a visit to the Olympic and Sports Museum in Doha, the biggest exhibition of its kind covering both ancient and modern Games. It depicts every aspect of the Games, warts and all - boycotts, doping, murder and mayhem, as well as the glory.

There is a unique collection of torches from every Olympics and even an in-built mini stadium, complete with stands and track where visitors can trot around and mount the podium to take the epic oath.

For a nation which has never held the Olympics it is indeed a remarkable project. But that may be about to be rectified for Qatar is determined to host the Games in 2032. So is Saudi Arabia and then it is likely that only the Middle East can afford them.

Similarly both are keen to stage the unification heavyweight title fight between Usyk and fellow unbeaten British giant Tyson Fury, who holds the WBC belt.

According to Fury’s co-promoter Bob Arum there are four venues in contention - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Dubai. Plus Las Vegas.

But he admits that Nevada’s fistic citadel has little or no chance of outbidding any of sport’s new Middle Eastern Mecca. Such is the way of climate change in the shifting world to sport.

Yes, the Middle East means business. Sports business.