Gulf Naturalization of Athletes

The practice that allows athletes flexibility in choosing their national allegiances and even their citizenship is one called naturalization, although there is often nothing natural about it.

Nov 11, 2017

sports Illustration by Shenuka Corea

This summer’s World Championships in Athletics saw Qatar and Bahrain secure more medals than any other Gulf state. Qatar finished 17th in the post-competition medal tally. Bahrain enjoyed an even more successful tournament and finished 11th, outranking the athletic powerhouse Jamaica in the final standings. Fellow Gulf states Kuwait, Oman, UAE and Saudi Arabia failed to secure any medals at the competition. One cause of this ranking difference may be Qatar and Bahrain’s decisions to field foreign-born athletes at the championship, a move that set the nations apart from their neighbors in the Gulf. Qatar’s medal winners both hail from Sudan; Bahrain’s medal takers hail from Kenya and Nigeria. No Khaleeji athlete won or came close to winning a medal at the championships.

Qatar and Bahrain have long histories of purchasing the athletic services of foreign nationals, with Time magazine calling them “gold medalists in recruiting foreign-born athletes” in a 2008 article. As the article suggests, the practice of recruiting immigrant athletes goes back to Qatar’s acquisition of Bulgarian weightlifter Angel Popov, who won the country a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics under the Arabic name Saif Saeed Asaad. Handball fans may remember Qatar’s 2012 attempt to buy the services of the seven-foot-tall Danish left back Nikolaj Markussen for an unspecified million dollar figure.

Though Qatar and Bahrain take the global lead in purchasing elite athletic services, other nations are just as eager to secure foreign-born talent. The UAE won its only medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics courtesy of Moldovan-born judoka Sergiu Toma, who moved to the UAE four years prior to the Olympics along with five fellow Moldovan judokas in a concerted effort from the UAE National Olympic Committee to increase its medal count. Europeans, meanwhile, may know the practice from elite-level football, in which nations like Portugal and Spain boast a reputation for granting citizenship to marquee players like Deco, a Brazilian-born Portuguese player in the 2006 FIFA Men’s World Cup, as well as Brazilian-born Spanish attacker Diego Costa, and foreign-born Real Madrid legends Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás.

The practice of naturalization allows athletes this flexibility in choosing their national allegiances and even their citizenships. Athlete naturalization sees governments grant specific exemptions to customary citizenship rules which allow athletes to change citizenship overnight. The legal status of athlete naturalization may remain disputed, but the practice is on the rise globally. Naturalized athletes often, but not always, move from poorer countries to ones with relatively greater economic and political power. The athletic consequences to countries that see their star athletes emigrate to naturalization-reliant countries like Bahrain or Qatar can be dire; an article published in the Guardian in January 2004 declared, “Kenyan sport in crisis as athletes go on run”. In the nations that recruit talent from poorer countries, the practice can wreak a comparable but different havoc, with foreign-born established stars crowding out emerging local talents. A January 2017 piece in Al Arabiya English compared the practice to “taking the easy way out” and suggested that Gulf national teams ought instead to “put more effort into finding and developing local talent,” arguing that such local talent “isn’t that hard to find […] all that needs to be done is locate the talent, and put some heart into sculpting the [athlete] that they wish to have.”

Is Al Arabiya English right to hope that the Gulf has enough elite athletic talent to forgo the practice of naturalization and still achieve at a high level in international sports competitions? Given the sheer newness of economic prosperity in the Gulf, it may still be too soon to expect Khaleeji athletes to achieve at the highest level in international sports. In a 2012 piece that asked why India won so few medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, The Atlantic demonstrated that a large population size does not guarantee elite sporting success. To win medals in competitions like the Olympics or this summer’s World Championships in Athletics, countries must boast an already-established talent development program at a national level. To run such a program, countries need both money and time. Money guarantees the material conditions to nurture elite talent; time allows national talent development programs to make local alliances to help scout prospective athletes. While all Gulf countries possess sufficient wealth to run such talent development programs, and while many such programs have already been started, those programs have yet to graduate athletes who can compete with the world’s best. With another decade of maturation, Gulf academies may feature enough talent to render the practice of elite athlete naturalization obsolete and unnecessary.

Until those Gulf talent academies matriculate homegrown talents in large numbers, however, one might expect naturalization to continue across the region, which raises an obvious but vexed question: Is it moral for Gulf countries to naturalize athletes? The tragic irony for naturalized elite athletes like Qatar’s ethnic Sudanese medalists at this summer’s World Championships in Athletics is that they serve as representatives for a country that both abuses the cheap labor of their countrymen and routinely refuses those would-be laborers their visas for no apparent reason. Qatari sports fans embrace mercenary athletes from the same nations whose pleas for a fair road to citizenship they deny. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi made a similar argument in the UAE context in a piece in Gulf News published in September 2013, asking the country’s rulers to “give expats an opportunity to earn UAE citizenship.”

Professor Joseph K. Adjaye of the University of Ghana approached naturalizations of athletes in a different way. His 2010 article in Africa Today suggests that “the continuous wave of defections of talented African athletes from the poorer global South to the richer North and Gulf states points to a diffusion of core ideas associated with citizenship and a decline in belief in the Westphalian model of the nation-state and its inherent ethical imperatives.” Adjaye suggests that athlete naturalization is neither good nor bad, but an expectable development in a world that is beginning to care less about national belonging. Perhaps we should view the Gulf trend of naturalizing foreign-born athletes as a symptom that the world is changing, that political borders are blurring, and that it makes increasingly less sense to retain fantasies about ethnic and national purity in a world that is becoming more mixed with every day, and with every new naturalization.

Nikolaj R Nielsen is a Sports Editor. Email him at [email protected]

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