The Soft Power of Sport in Domestic Development

7 octobre 2021
By Hussa Al-Khalifa, Ph.D. candidate at Loughborough University, London.

The Middle East has often been the site of hard power attempts by the West at influencing the region, often with an accompanying critique of the political instabilities that seem to plague a vast majority of its countries (Michnik, 2021). The ongoing wars and turmoil in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Palestine mean that external interest in the region is often filtered through public diplomacy efforts and military agreements. As a result, the relatively stable monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a subset of six countries within the broader Middle East – often find themselves working to improve the image of the region and carve out an identity within the tumultuous backdrop. Unlike with the rest of the Middle East, relationships between the GCC and the West are oftentimes guided by soft power strategies such as increasing foreign aid support (Salisbury, 2018), cultural and religious diplomacy (Ulrichsen, 2021) and even hosting sport mega-events (Cafiero and Alexander, 2020).

Although the realm of sport is increasingly being recognised as a unique channel for soft power in the region, it also is receiving greater scrutiny and criticism. Looking at the case of Qatar and its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, Brannagan and Giulianotti (2018) identify how the additional attention could result in a loss of power for the region’s countries in light of the critique of how the event has been handled. Chadwick (2019) has identified examples of business tensions that could arise because of rivalries among GCC countries interested in hosting and broadcasting sporting mega-events. While the conflicts might suggest that sport is on the wane as an avenue for exercising soft power in the region, in fact the reach of soft power in sport goes beyond the often-cited practice of increasing international attention by hosting mega-events (Grix and Lee, 2013) and includes a wide array of strategies employed domestically to achieve various objectives. In this article, I want to take a closer look at the soft power of sport on internal GCC audiences – specifically the impact of the field of Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) on the region – with an eye for understanding what lessons can be drawn from it regarding the internal uses of soft power and sport.

Although the notion of soft power has traditionally been discussed in terms of its ability to achieve national goals directed towards outward audiences, its inwards reach is equally important (Connell, 2018) and provides a useful way to conceptualise the potential of SDP to be used to achieve policy goals. The potential soft power of sport aimed internally in the GCC is already being recognised. For example, AlKhalifa and Farello (2020) demonstrate how social media is increasingly being used in the Arabian Gulf region by sport governing bodies for its soft power ability to promote sports participation amongst girls and women within their respective countries. Similarly, Al-Khalifa and Al-Khalifa (2021) argue that regional sporting events can be used as a soft power platform directed towards achieving regional unity and promoting a common social identity among the female sporting community in the GCC. Building on these notions, I want to argue that SDP programs can similarly be considered as sites for implementing soft power strategies to align program impacts with social change policies, specifically for women. By better supporting programs and directing their mechanisms towards specific outcome pathways, participants’ developmental paths can be accelerated in closer alignment with wider domestic policy goals.

Evidence from a study conducted on women-focused SDP programs in the GCC region illustrates an array of impacts produced at multiple levels of influence that relate to both sports and social development (Al-Khalifa, 2021). These programs encompass short-term sport activities held within psychological and sociocultural safe spaces that promote a private, pressure-free setting for sport enjoyment. In addition to the activities, programs offer entertainment outlets, group bonding activities, and different forms of commercial services to fulfil practical needs such as meals. Players and their families can participate at all levels, creating a unique experience not seen elsewhere but comporting with the cultural expectations of the region. Taken as a whole, the SDP experience results in many cross-sector multi-level impacts.

In the short term, the outcomes of SDP programs included regular participation in sporting events and (as a result) an increase in physical exercise. SDP programs also encouraged the development of friendship bonds between participants while also facilitating personal development within a safe, private and positive space. Participants and staff alike were considered beneficiaries of the low-key sporting environment where fun and enjoyment on the pitch were emphasised. Staff members also described gaining practical experience in planning for and putting on such programs.

Amalgamating these diverse impacts of SDP programs, causal inferences can be made regarding their contributions to the social development of girls and women in the Gulf region. Gains can be seen in improvements to participants’ technical skills and positive changes to physical fitness as a result of engaging in SDP programming. These gains, according to participants, translate into increased self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, as well as the benefits that stem from working as part of a team that is motivated by a common goal. Teamwork also transfers to connections forged off the pitch, extending support networks for women throughout the region. All these benefits lead to greater resources being directed towards sports programs, therefore supporting and facilitating women’s involvement in sport.

But SDP programs were also seen to help produce multi-level and cross-sector outcomes that ultimately support longer-term outcomes relating to wider development priorities for women. These translate into social impacts in the form of greater employability as a result of advancements in leadership skills and personal development, having more resilient women in the Gulf region and even larger numbers of women positioned to become decision-makers. For sport structures, SDP programs help foster positive attitudes and spectator engagement that increase the participation base of women in sport, leading to the wider diffusion of their benefits and creating a virtuous circle of reinforcing actions in the field of SDP programming and policy.

Whether the effects of the outcomes of SDP programming are felt immediately or work on a longer time frame, the study illustrates how sport can be an influential conduit for achieving policy aims in the region and more broadly wherever policy aims could be supported by SDP programming. The message is clear: for policymaking bodies, it is high time to make use of these programs to help achieve wider domestic policy goals such as reducing non-communicable disease, increasing women in leadership positions and achieving sport participation targets. However, an interesting outcome of the study revealed that the efficacy of SDP is related to their not being co-opted by policymakers or development agencies. The findings revealed that an intrinsic part of their appeal and effectiveness is encapsulated in an ethos that rejects top-down thinking in favour of a cooperative approach among institutions (Al-Khalifa, 2021).

At the same time, the study reveals that central to conceptualising how SDP can be used for achieving domestic policy targets is an understanding that evidence as to the effectiveness of programs cannot be relegated to quantifiable measures. Programs produce multiple qualitative impacts, and visualising the change process as a whole cannot be oversimplified through a series of KPI-like numbers. Although the lack of quantifiable measures may be a deterrent for some policymaking bodies (Coalter, 2013), the utility of SDP and its outcomes cannot be dismissed. Indeed, the attractiveness of SDP for policymaking bodies in the region is best understood in terms of its soft power ability to promote social change, which by definition eludes simplistic reductionist quantification.

By better supporting programs and directing their mechanisms towards specific outcome pathways, participants’ developmental paths can be accelerated in closer alignment with wider policy goals. What is required going forward is better coordination between policymaking bodies in sport and development as well as with SDP organisations to produce greater synergies. These would help set a common agenda and target long-term impacts that produce coherence and congruence across efforts. To that end, a system model can be constructed in light of the possible impacts of the sector that could be utilised to direct current programs and efforts towards national priority goals set by official agencies for women in the region. In considering the role of wider socio-ecological levels for supporting SDP programs achieving their aims, a systems model would help ensure the coherence of efforts and tactics used to widen the impact and role of SDP programs and the deepened involvement of actors in promoting SDP efforts.

By comparing the sector’s ability to leverage soft power in achieving national goals without coercion, policymakers and wider actors recognise that although the benefits of SDP programming can neither be forced or guaranteed, there is considerable potential for SDP to make a social impact. By channelling efforts at furthering these programming opportunities, SDP becomes an outlet to help policymaking bodies achieve their goals without being appropriated by a particular policymaking body – highlighting in practical terms the distinct role that the SDP sector can play in mobilising and bridging policy and community practice.

The case presented above highlights an alternative way of thinking about soft power, sport and the Arabian Gulf region. Sport may not be the avenue of choice when thinking about social change strategies; indeed, at first glance sport may seem a paradoxical avenue for women’s development. But what my research has shown is that in the GCC region many benefits emerge for women within distinct sport spaces – benefits that when backed by soft power result in desirable outcomes for programmers, policymakers and participants alike. Although SDP in itself may not be seen as the sole answer for achieving developmental goals for women, by fostering the relationship between women and sport within SDP settings and using the right contextual mix of processes and mechanisms, the soft power of SDP programming emerges as a positive force for furthering development efforts aimed for women.

From the example of the GCC and women in sports, the value of SDP programming in helping achieve domestic development goals is unmistakable. Indeed, its positive outcomes suggest that it is worthwhile for policymaking bodies in other contexts to explore the current SDP landscape and what it has to offer in terms of leveraging its impacts to align with other national domestic goals. In this way, in addition to the current use of sport in soft power strategies aimed externally, policymaking bodies would acknowledge the soft power of sport and intentionally and strategically use the sector as part of their portfolio for optimizing internally desired outcomes.




Al-Khalifa, H. (2021) Khaleejizing Change: Women, Sport, and Development in the Arabian Gulf (Doctoral Dissertation). Loughborough University, United Kingdom.

Al-Khalifa, H. and Al-Khalifa, D. (2021) ‘“We’re all in this together”: Perspectives from within the Gulf Cooperation Council Women’s Games’, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, pp. 1–16. doi: 10.1177/1012690221999803

AlKhalifa, H. and Farello, A. (2020) ‘The soft power of Arab women’s football: changing perceptions and building legitimacy through social media’, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 13(2), pp. 241–257.

Brannagan, P. and Giulianotti, R. (2018) ‘The soft power–soft disempowerment nexus: the case of Qatar’, International Affairs, 94(5), pp. 1139–1157.

Chadwick, S. (2019) ‘The business of sports in the Gulf Cooperation Council Member States’, in Reiche, D. and Sorek, T. (eds.) Sport, Politics, and Society in the Middle East. London: Hurst, pp. 183–204.

Coalter, F., 2013. Sport for development: What game are we playing?. London: Routledge.

Connell, J. (2018) ‘Fiji, rugby and the geopolitics of soft power. shaping national and international identity: Fiji, rugby and soft power’, New Zealand Geographer, 74(2), 92–100. doi:10.1111/nzg.12184

Grix, J. and Lee, D. (2013) ‘Soft Power, Sports Mega-Events and Emerging States: The Lure of the Politics of Attraction’, Global Society, 27(4), pp. 521–536.

Michnik, W. (2021) Great power rivalry in the Middle East. Available at: (Downloaded 23 September 2021).

Salisbury, P. (2018) Aiding and Abetting: The GCC as Quiet Giants and Emerging Players in Aid and Overseas Development Assistance. Available at: (Downloaded 23 September 2021).

Ulrichsen, K. (2021) ‘Cultural and Religious Diplomacy as Soft Power in EU-GCC Relations’, in Ghafar, A. A. and Colombo, S. (eds.) The European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council: Towards a New Path. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 57–78.


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