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How Bahrain used MMA to enhance diplomatic relations with Philippines’ Duterte

Karim Zidan delves into how MMA promotion Brave was used as a tool for diplomatic relations in the Philippines. 

On Friday, March 15, Brave Combat Federation (Brave CF) ventured into the Philippines for the first time in the promotion’s three-year existence with a mixed martial arts show titled Brave 22: Storm of Warriors. The event took place at the SM Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City and featured eight Filipino fighters competing on home soil, including bantamweight champion Stephen Loman, who defeated Algeria’s Elias Boudegzdame by fourth round technical knockout. Yet apart from being a triumphant event for the promotion, Brave 22 was also a masterclass of political diplomacy between Bahrain and the Philippines.

Ahead of the event, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the fifth son of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa and founder of Brave CF, met with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to discuss the friendship between the Republic of the Philippines and the Kingdom of Bahrain.

“We are very proud of our close links with the Kingdom of Bahrain, which has developed through the years,” Duterte stated. “Your Highness’s visit opens new horizons for collaboration between both countries and serves for the development of our ties. Hosting ‘Brave 22’ is part of our cooperation in supporting a promotion which is making its way towards the global stage.”

Duterte and Sheikh Khalid reportedly discussed Brave CF’s role in developing MMA as a sport in the Philippines and how it could translate to improved bilateral relations between the two nations. During the meeting, Duterte, whose brutal campaign against drug users and dealers in the Philippines has led to a death toll of over 5000 citizens since July 2016 also praised Sheikh Khalid’s efforts with Brave CF and the diplomatic relationship between their respective nations.

Sheikh Khalid, who arrived in the Philippines one week ahead of the Brave 22 event, was welcomed to the country by a handful of Filipino officials, including the Alfonso Ver, Philippines’ Ambassador in Bahrain, Rey Catapang, the Charge d’affaires of the Philippines Embassy in London; Leslie Baja, Assistant Secretary for the Department of Foreign Affairs; Consul Amable Aguiluz IX, Honorary Consul of Bahrain in the Philippines; and Ambassador Amable Aguiluz V, Special Envoy of the President to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). After meeting with Duterte, Sheikh Khalid thanked the Filipino government for their warm embrace of his MMA promotion.

“Sports have become an important part of the promotion of bilateral relations between countries, and this is an opportunity for us to open the horizons of fruitful cooperation between Bahrain and the Philippines in this fertile field, which is driving the relationship towards further growth and progress,” Sheikh Khalid said during the meeting. “We take this opportunity to express our gratitude and appreciation to Your Excellency for the warm welcoming and hosting the 22nd edition of Brave. The Philippines is the ideal place to embrace sports activities, especially MMA, thanks to its popularity among youth in the country and the emergence of many young talents such as Stephen Loman, who’s our champion and part of the Brave family. Hosting such great sports activities reflects Your Excellency’s strong efforts in supporting sports and sportspeople.”

Since its launch in 2016, Brave CF has enjoyed significant growth. Outside of Bahrain, the promotion hosted events in Brazil, India, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Indonesia, Colombia, Pakistan, South Africa and Mexico. As a result of its international expansion, Brave CF has showcased talented fighters from a variety of nations that rarely get an international platform. It has also served as the primary platform for Arab fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet outside of these notable achievements, Brave CF has also not shied away from being a platform for foreign policy and diplomatic relations.

MMA as Foreign Policy

In 2015, Sheikh Khalid took the decision to begin investing in MMA. 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 CF, the following year.

Apart from being a first lieutenant in Bahrain’s Armed Forces and the deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth Sports, Sheikh Khalid has personally competed in a pair of amateur MMA fights and regularly trains in various martial arts. Yet despite his down-to-earth image, Sheikh Khalid is a member of a monarchy that continues to commit shocking human rights violations.

In order to present 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. This includes 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.

Apart from using sports as a means to distract from violent domestic policies, Bahrain’s sports diplomacy tactics are also useful foreign policy strategies. In a recent example, Bahrain used MMA and the Brave promotion as a means to enhance bilateral ties with Chechnya and its warlord ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. On April 5, 2017, Kadyrov visited Bahrain on an official state visit with the kingdom’s royal family. During his stay, Kadyrov visited with Sheikh Khalid and toured the KHK facility, where he gave an impassioned speech to the local fighters before inviting them to train in Chechnya. Six months later, a delegation of fighters from KHK MMA visited Grozny, Chechnya and trained at Kadyrov’s facility — a trip which coincided with Sheikh Nasser’s visit to Chechnya. In 2018, Brave announced that they would host a co-promoted show with Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA promotion. The event took place in November 2018 during “Brave Combat Week” in Bahrain and saw Kadyrov visit the kingdom again to attend the show. Ultimately, this paved the way for Bahrain to reap improved economic relations with both Chechnya and Russia proper.

This is not the first time that Brave CF has been used as a diplomatic platform. Ahead of Brave CF’s first event in India, which took place in Mumbai on April 23rd, 2017, Brave president Mohammed Shahid stated that he viewed the event “as the next step towards strengthening diplomatic, cultural and economic ties between India and Bahrain.” The Philippines is merely the latest country that Bahrain has attempted to use MMA diplomacy to strengthen political ties.

Bahrain–Philippines relations

The kingdom of Bahrain is home to a large expatriate community from the Philippines. As of 2014, there are more than 40,000 Filipinos in Bahrain, many of whom are migrant workers. Filipinos in Bahrain mainly work as hotel staff, mall workers accountants, construction contractors, engineers, sales associates, as well as government support staff. The presence of these workers helped create an awareness about the Philippines and served as an informal cultural exchange with the local population. It is also one of the primary reasons why the two countries are keen to maintain strong political relations.

Bahrain and the Philippines share a friendly and cordial relationship since formal ties were established in 1978. The two countries provide mutual support on international candidates in the United Nations and other international organizations, maintain economic relations, and engage in an exchange of high level state visits between officials from both governments to help solidify relations and strengthen ties.

In April 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte visited Bahrain on an official visit, where he witnessed the signing of several bilateral agreements and met with the Filipino community during his stay. Duterte’s Middle East tour, which also included stops in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, generated an investment pledge of over $650 million.

Outside of their political and economic relations, the Bahrain and Philippines governments share a history of authoritarianism when dealing with their local populations. Duterte came under fire in mainstream media for his brutal campaign on drug users and dealers in the Philippines. Despite a death toll of over 5000 citizens since taking office in 2016, Duterte pledged in February 2019 that his war on drugs will be “harsher in the days to come.”

“I think I would be more well, I said, harsher in the days to come… I’m putting notice to everybody, I will not allow my country to be destroyed by drugs. I don’t want my country to end up as a failed state,” Duterte said in a speech in Malacañang. “For those guys who keep on with their business of importing, be they Mexicans, Chinese or Filipino, if you continue to feed our children with drugs, there’s no way. I will catch up and kill you.”

In the eight years that followed the 2011 Arab Spring protests, which saw Bahrain’s Shia-Islam majority population revolt against the centuries old Sunni monarchy, Bahrain’s government 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.

Therefore it is understandable that Sheikh Khalid, an official representative of the Kingdom of Bahrain, would use his MMA event in the Philippines as an opportunity to improve bilateral relations between the two countries. Prior examples in Chechnya and India have proven that diplomacy through sports is a successful tactic to strengthen ties between nations.

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