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View From The Middle East – An unprecedented investment in sport infrastructure

August 24, 2023

In this week’s View From Middle East article Felicien Dillard, Partner and Head of Active Places at Portas Consulting looks at the unprecedented investment being made in the sports infrastructure in the Middle East.

We are seeing an unprecedented and extended period for major investments in sport infrastructure around the GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar in particular. 

It began in 2010 with Qatar’s world cup bid and the necessity for stadiums, public transport, and tourist accommodation. After overcoming the challenges of completing the infrastructure on time and successfully hosting the World Cup, Qatar is facing a similar challenge to many ‘post-major-event’ nations: how to utilize the newly developed sport infrastructure in the decades to come. The current pipeline of legacy events (including the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and the 2030 Asian Games) has anchored Qatar’s event calendar and shows a willingness to be an established fixture in sporting events globally.  The country’s sport infrastructure will continue to be activated as the event calendar grows. 

Today Saudi Arabia is leading the way in developing sport infrastructure and this is expected to continue for the coming decade, in time for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup and 2034 Asian Games, two major milestones in the calendar. Where Saudi Arabia’s approach to sports infrastructure differs from the historical approach and that of neighbouring countries stems from the inclusion of Sport as a distinct and core element in the Saudi Vision 2030. Sports has therefore become a strategic consideration in all the major infrastructure projects the country embarks on, rather than an isolated sector or selectively attached to a major event milestone. This is best illustrated by the inclusion of Sport in the planning and designs for Saudi Arabia’s mega and giga projects such as NEOM, Qiddiya, Al Ulla, Jeddah Downtown, King Salman Park, Diriyah, and others. The inclusion of sport and sport facilities from the inception of these projects gives them a chance to be built for daily community as well as major event use, and for their designs to integrate with the overall project and their future diversity of users. The legacy planning (sizing, users, commercialization, operations) considerations for the Saudi sport infrastructure inherently become the shared design rationale alongside major event functionality. 

The Saudi approach to sports infrastructure also differs from its neighbours with for example the major upgrade and refurbishment program of Saudi stadiums initiated to meet the 2027 AFC Asian Cup hosting requirements (four stadiums are undergoing major refurbishments in Riyadh and Dammam). Enhancing existing assets allows for risk reduction in the national stadium development program and keeps many fans, teams, and communities anchored in their existing stadiums. 

The UAE has so far taken a more gradual and selective approach to developing sports infrastructure. Abu Dhabi is filling the ‘opportunity-gap’ by selecting sports to invest in, such as the first indoor Velodrome in the region and the world’s largest wave pool, both under development on Hudayriyat Island. These will be landmarks in an ambitious destination that combines sport and leisure for tourists and residents. With the 2018 Special Olympic World Games and the two seasons of UFC fight Island in 2020 and 2021 Abu Dhabi has been developing as a global destination for major sporting events, which will only increase the need for adapted sports facilities. 

The evolving mentalities around sports infrastructure since the last construction boom in sport cities and stadiums of the 1970s has been an increasing interest in developing multi-use sports facilities that are capable of hosting major events, cater to a growing need for performance athlete training, and enable year-round community use. Government institutions initiating these project are demanding more from the developers and designers by setting briefs for new sport facilities that give more balanced consideration to

  • Content
  • Operations
  • Commercialisation, and 
  • Design. 

As the GCC takes an increasingly established role in the global events calendar by regularly hosting global sport competitions, building domestic athlete development programs, and investing in local sports participation programs, the sports infrastructure is also undergoing a sustained period of transformation. While mega projects attract most of the headlines, there is a broader trend underway where municipalities, private developers, and investors are also fueling the development of infrastructure. 

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