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Oil Sheikhs of Combat Sports: The violent Gulf monarchies investing in MMA & jiu-jitsu

Karim Zidan delves into the longstanding tradition of violent Gulf monarchies investing in combat sports. 

In recent years, Gulf State monarchies have shown a growing interest in the proliferation of sports in their respective kingdoms. Wealthy sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, have invested in various competitions, including the highly controversial 2022 World Cup - marred by reports of slave labour - and the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Beyond these well-established and prestigious global sporting events, various ruling Houses in the Gulf have also fancied themselves as patrons of combat sports.

Since 1998, Arab monarchs have invested in combat sports largely ignored by their peers in the international community. From Brazilian jiu-jitsu to mixed martial arts, these controversial figures have bought their way into positions of influence in niche sports desperate for wealthy benefactors. As a result, Middle Eastern oil tycoons have ironically become influential figures in this expanding industry - authoritarian regimes acting as philanthropists for violent sports.

While it is evidently clear how these regimes penetrated combat sports, the question remains: what do Arab monarchs in socially conservative societies have to gain from promoting niche sports like MMA?

Monarchs of Combat Sports

In 1993, Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed al Nahyan, the son of then UAE monarch Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, fell in love with combat sports after watching his first Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) event. While completing his university degree in the United States, Sheikh Tahnoun began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu and eventually took his growing passion for combat sports back to the Middle East.

In a few short years, Sheikh Tahnoon founded the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), a martial arts facility equipped with world class instructors and resources. BY 1998, he created the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships, an international grappling tournament that eventually became the single most prestigious event of its kind. Over the years, the annual showcase has featured UFC and PRIDE competitors such as Tito Ortiz, Enson Inoue, Jeff Monson, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, Fabricio Werdum, and Matt Hughes.

Sheikh Tahnoon
UAE Jiujitsu Federation

Sheikh Tahnoon’s aspirations to make jiu-jitsu a popular sport in the UAE was slowly coming to fruition. He transformed the martial art into an official government program, heavily promoted the sport, and even incorporated into the local educational system. As a result, BJJ has enjoyed a gradual rise in popularity in the UAE. This was evident from the crowds of cheering fans who greeted the triumphant UAE national jiu-jitsu team upon their return from Turkmenistan, where they claimed four golds, four silver, and seven bronze medals at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games.

Sheikh Tahnoon’s plans for combat sports didn’t end with his investment in BJJ. He later helped establish the UAE Wrestling, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu and Kickboxing Federation, which he now heads as the Honorary President. He also regularly invited notable champions like Georges St. Pierre to train with him at his facility.

Sheikh Tahnoon

"Sheikh Tahnoon is driving mixed martial arts in the UAE," St Pierre said. "He is extremely passionate about the sport and all its forms. He wants it to grow.”

Twelve years after Sheikh Tahnoon kindled interest in BJJ, a deal between Flash Entertainment, a subsidiary of the UAE government, and the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) came to fruition. By 2010, the United Arab Emirates will own 10 percent of the world’s most popular MMA promotion.

Abu Dhabi’s Strategic UFC Investment

On January 12, 2010, the UFC announced that Flash Entertainment, a state-owned entertainment company in the United Arab Emirates, has acquired a 10 percent stake in Zuffa, LLC, the promotion’s parent company.

Though UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo J. Fertitta steered clear of disclosing the financial details behind the deal, he ambitiously proclaimed the newfound partnership to be pivotal to accelerating the brand’s future success and imminent global expansion: “We are confident that this partnership will accelerate the worldwide growth of the UFC.”

While the partnership was viewed as a curious one by fans and media alike, it was also an understandable business decision due to the Zuffa’s single-minded goal for international expansion. Flash Entertainment, the UAE’s leading entertainment consultancy that previously hosted events from tennis tournaments to concerts featuring Aerosmith, Coldplay, and Rihanna, would serve as a strategic partner to help the UFC reach its ambitious goal for global domination.

“Since our very first meeting, we were impressed by Lorenzo, Frank and Dana’s commitment to growing UFC as a global sport.” said Ossama Khoreibi, Chairman of Flash Entertainment. “Flash is equally committed to building Abu Dhabi’s profile as an international entertainment destination, and this partnership provides further proof of our company’s bold ambitions. We look forward to an exciting future ahead, working closely with our UFC partners to activate this sport in the UAE, the region and across the world.”

According to local UAE reports, the UFC’s partnership with Flash Entertainment came shortly after Lorenzo Fertitta met with Sheikh Tahnoon in Morocco to negotiate the deal with Flash.

UFC President Dana White w/ Sheikh Tahnoon

Carlos Santos, a a BJJ coach at Sheikh Tahnoon’s ADCC believes that given that Tahnoon is the younger brother of UAE president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Flash Entertainment is entirely owned by the government, Sheikh Tahnoon likely may have had an interest in the arrangement. "The royal family takes care of Flash, so of course it is him, 100 per cent,” he says. “Sheikh Tahnoon is always trying to do what is best for jiu-jitsu and other mixed martial arts in the Emirates, and this move is very, very good.”

Controversy in the Desert

While all parties involved had high expectations for the partnership, the UFC-Flash Entertainment relationship remains a tumultuous one that reaps little benefit for either the UFC or Flash Entertainment. The problems began four months following the partnership announcement, when the promotion hosted its first event in the Middle East, UFC 112: Invincible. At the time, the event was a unique occasion because it was held outside in an open-air arena and broadcast on Pay-Per-View at 1pm ET due to the time difference. However, a lacklustre main event between Anderson Silva and Demian Maia put an end to the UFC’s hopes of aggressive expansion into the Middle East.

While the UFC would not return to Abu Dhabi for another four years, the promotion was unable to avoid the controversy and human rights concerns that accompanied their dealings with the UAE government. The promotion announced a return to Abu Dhabi in April 2014, which was met with editorials condemning the UFC’s decision to work with human rights offenders.

Much of the controversy surrounded The Guardian’s investigation into the abuse of migrant workers trapped in the Middle East. Most work and live in abysmal conditions and are unable to leave because employers withhold their passports from them. Given that both the UFC’s ventures into Abu Dhabi took place in open-air arenas that were erected overnight and quickly torn down, there was significant concern that such abuses took place on the work sites setting up the UFC shows.

UFC Fight Night Weigh-in
UFC Fight Night: Abu Dhabi
Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images

In response to the concerns, the UFC released a statement to BloodElbow in support of their partner:

“UFC is partnered with a leader in event management and promotion in the region, Flash Entertainment. As a leader in the region, Flash adheres to industry standards as it relates to its event production, one of which is the UFC event from Abu Dhabi this weekend.”

The UAE’s abhorrent treatment of migrant workers is far from the only form of intolerance present in the Muslim nation. According to Human Rights Watch, UAE citizens and foreign nationals who publicly speak out against the local government are at risk of facing arbitrary detention, forcible disappearances, and torture. The UAE government also uses “ digital campaigns” (surveillance technology) to monitor dissidents, thus placing a vice-grip on freedom of expression.

The UAE is also a patriarchal society that permits discrimination based on sex and gender. Discrimination on the basis of sex/gender is not included in country’s 2015 anti-discrimination law. As a result, women are primarily at the mercy of their male guardians (father, brother, husband, oldest male relative) and are, simply put, at their mercy. Islamic ‘Sharia’ law, which is applied in the UAE, helps cement this form of superiority over women.

The Prince Of Wales And The Duchess Of Cornwall Tour United Arab Emirates - Day 2 Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

These discrimination laws also heavily impact the LGBTQ community. Various emirates have different laws and criminal convictions for “unnatural sex.” Abu Dhabi, the capital where the UFC hosted two of its shows, hands out prison sentences up to 14 years for same-sex relations.

Despite the long list of issues that make the UFC’s partnership with an authoritative regime a significant public relations blunder, the promotion has seemingly shown no interest in buying out Flash Entertainment’s stake in its promotion.

Fight Club Diplomacy

Approximately 850km northwest of Abu Dhabi lies Bahrain, another Gulf kingdom equally determined to become a significant player in the world of combat sports.

In 2015, Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the fifth son of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, began investing heavily in mixed martial arts. He financed the development of the Island nation’s first fully-functional MMA fight club (KHK MMA), and founded Bahrain’s first MMA promotion, Brave Combat Federation (Brave FC), the following year.

Through the patronage of Sheikh Khalid, KHK MMA recruited renowned coaches (Conor McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, chief among them) and prominent UFC fighters like former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and undefeated Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov to join the upstart team in Bahrain. Those who joined the KHK MMA team were given access to elite resources at no cost, including medical coverage - a rare deal in the combat sports realm. The prince also sponsors fighters like Edgar to wear the Bahraini flag during his appearances on UFC broadcasts. On one particular occasion at the TUF 22 Finale, Sheikh Khalid actually accompanied Edgar to the Octagon.

KHK MMA founder Mohammed Shahid (left) and Prince Khaled Bin Hamad Al Khalifa (right)

Sheikh Khalid primarily serves as first lieutenant in Bahrain’s Armed Forces but quickly became fascinated in the development of local sports. Apart from being the deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth Sports, he has personally competed in a pair of amateur MMA fights and regularly trains at the KHK facility. Yet despite his down-to-earth image, Sheikh Khalid is a member of a monarchy that continues to commit shocking human rights violations, and even uses sports to distract from their violent domestic policies.

In 2011, waves of revolutionary protests crashed into unsuspecting regimes across the Arab world. Among the governments that faced civil discontent was Bahrain, whose Shia-Islam majority population had largely been oppressed by the centuries-old Sunni-monarchy. However, with the support of Saudi Arabia’s military might, the Al Khalifa monarchy was able to suppress the uprising with the use of excessive force, forced disappearances, and well-documented torture tactics. One of the men indicted of personally torturing Bahraini citizens was Sheikh Khaled’s full brother, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

In the six years that followed the Arab Spring, Bahrain’s monarchy continued to oppress the vast majority of its population in an attempt to maintain control of the throne. Tactics such as the dissolution of political parties, passport confiscations, and torture, became common practice. With little hope of gaining Western-type legitimacy through government administration, the kingdom turned its attention to sports diplomacy and the many veiled benefits it offers wealthy despots.

Sheikh Khalid meeting ZUFFA’s Lorenzo Fertitta

In order to fabricate an image of peace and prosperity within the Island kingdom, Bahrain began to invest in sports as way to garner state prestige on an international stage. To date, Bahrain has used the Formula-1 Grand Prix event, the Olympic Games, cycling, and MMA in its plans to cement legitimacy and enhance their image abroad. Prestigious events like the F-1 race helped turn Bahrain from an unknown island into a tourist destination in the Middle East, while simultaneously distracting from ongoing human rights abuse.

Ironman Bahrain
Sheikh Nasser and King Hamad at Ironman Bahrain
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for Ironman

Sheikh Khalids’s investment in MMA has also been a useful foreign policy tool for Bahrain’s renewed relationship with the Russian Federation. Chechnya’s military dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov, visited Bahrain in April 2017 as an official envoy from the Kremlin to enhance ties with the Middle Eastern monarchy. Apart from official business discussed during their meetings, Kadyrov and Sheikh Khalid exchanged pleasantries about their respective fight clubs. They forged a verbal partnership that would see a talent exchange between Bahrain’s KHK MMA team and Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA team.

As a result, a delegation of fighters from KHK MMA visited Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, in October 2017. Their trip coincided with Sheikh Nasser’s visit to Chechnya, thus emphasizing the significance of sports diplomacy during political discourse.

The proliferation of monarchs influencing combat sports sheds light on a variety of concerns. It is evidently clear that sports, even violent ones like MMA, can be politicized and perverted for the benefit of despots, tyrants, and military rulers looking to cement their authority and enhance their tattered images abroad.

Update: Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s legal team has provided the following statement:

“The allegations made against Sheikh Nasser are entirely false and form part of an ongoing political campaign. Following a similar attempt by a UK-based campaigning group to prosecute Sheikh Nasser over the allegations, the UK police decided not to pursue an investigation against Sheikh Nasser on the basis of the alleged “evidence” submitted to them.”