Previous Session: Off the Pitch: Sport, Diplomacy, and Nation-building

Amidst the tumult of Iraq’s conflict firing along ethnic and sectarian battle lines, an unparalleled unity can be found on the soccer pitches in the north of the country. The ‘inter-ethnic harmony’ embodied by Kirkuk FC instils hope where many an observer declares it to be lost. In Abkhazia, Kurdistan recently flaunted their panoply befitting the international attention they have long been denied when they competed in the World Football Cup run by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA). Closer to the heart of great power politics, the Kremlin claims that the decision made by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) to ban Russian athletes from competing in the 2016 Olympics is part of an anti-Russian operation driven by Western crusaders. Meanwhile, in protest over Israel’s attempt to restrict the movement of team Palestine’s players, team Palestine sought Israel’s suspension from FIFA. The disagreement, however, ended in unprecedented levels of cooperation between the two teams’ football associations. FIFA has even granted Palestine the right to hold 2018 Asian Cup Qualification games on home soil in the West Bank. For some states, major sporting events form an integral part of their international business branding strategy; continuing controversy over migrant labour working on World Cup 2022 construction sites has been damaging to Qatar’s international image, as have anti-government protests that coincide each year with Bahrain’s Formula 1 Grand Prix.

As tides of turmoil continue to wash across the Middle East, we ask:

  • Are students of politics neglecting sport at their peril?
  • Has sport become yet another forum for omnipresent power struggles?
  • What lessons can political leaders take from the sporting arena?
  • Is there a role for sport to play in future community building of the Middle East’s fractured regions?
  • What insights can we draw from the international brand building of the Arab Gulf states?

Joining us for this discussion is Kieren Pender. Kieran is an Honours student at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (Middle East and Central Asia), writing his thesis on the use of sport by unrecognised states for political legitimacy purposes. He is also a sports writer for The Guardian, and has just returned from his fieldwork covering the CONIFA World Football Cup in Abkhazia. You can read his article about the trip here.

Also joining us via Skype is Associate Professor Matthew Gray, currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Tokyo. He has published recent books on Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Conspiracy Theories of the Middle East. His research interests include politics, political economy/development, business, and international relations of the Gulf region, and new state capitalism more generally. He also has held positions with the Australian Government, working at the Australian Trade Commission from 1997 to 2002, the Department of Defence from 2002 to 2004, and the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs as Director Middle East and Africa from 2004 to early 2005.

This session will be held on Friday, 22 July at 11am at Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS) at the ANU.

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