Sport has many benefits, of course, from health to economics to tourism. But I am focusing, in this column, on how sport can make people feel at home, and part of a community — particularly expatriates.
I witnessed this first-hand when I was studying in London. I was one of a team of people helping to run around 45 clubs for Saudis in the UK. The one thing all those clubs had in common was that they included at least one sports team representing Saudi students in their respective cities. Often, they would include friends of other nationalities too, just to make the competition more enjoyable.
Sport brings them closer to their own societies and to ours. It gives them a sense of belonging — emotionally — to the city they live in. And sometimes it goes even further than that.
Recently, Soren Nikolajsen, managing director of Alawwal Bank, announced a partnership with the Saudi Climbing and Hiking Federation (SCHF) to promote a healthier society through a sport that appeals to men and women of all ages.
I first met Nikolajsen it was at a meeting to discuss an initiative to benefit women with special needs in the Kingdom with the cooperation of universities. Negotiations over that project are still ongoing, but I remember clearly how excited he was about its potential.
He told me, “I firmly believe that companies like ours should play a proactive role in encouraging participation in sports. Apart from the health benefits there are so many more positive side effects such as staff engagement, cross-functional cooperation, and generally creating a good working environment.”
I have met many other people in the corporate world who have shown similar interest in sport. It’s amazing how it can build cultural bridges in any society.
As far as I know, Saudi sports federations — with the exception of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation — have never received financial sponsorship before. But, thanks to the announcement of Vision 2030, companies are looking to play a more significant role in the rapid change in the country, and sports sponsorship is one way of doing that.
When the Bowling Federation held its first Open Championships this year for men and women, we saw a significant turnout from both citizens and expats. Sport has no nationality or language. It is a multinational passport enabling you to play and have fun without barriers. Vision 2030 stresses the need for healthier lifestyles — and sport will play a crucial role in achieving that.
As I said earlier, different nationalities within the Kingdom tend to create their own tournaments. For example, Bangladeshis have their own cricket league. Filipinos have basketball and bowling leagues. Perhaps now is the time to welcome such leagues into our sporting federations, bridging the gap between cultures and creating a friendlier environment in which we can learn from each other.
A few months ago, at a workshop organized by the Makkah Economic Forum to shed light on Vision 2030 and opportunities that it may create in the field of sports, Lina Khaled Almaeena, a member of the Shoura Council, pointed out that the transformations inspired by Vision 2030 have already opened up new business avenues in the sports sector.
Add to that the new opportunities for foreigners to come and invest in the Kingdom, and it seems that our sporting federations will soon have the chance to provide better support to both sexes, through sponsorships from local and foreign companies.
Saudi businessmen have already shown an appetite for investing in sports abroad. For example, Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad purchased a 50 percent stake in the English football club Sheffield United, becoming co-owner, along with Kevin McCabe in 2013. This year, the club won promotion to the Premier League after 12 years away from English football’s top tier.
Similar investment in the Kingdom’s sports clubs may help improve performance in this country, too.
• Dr. Razan Baker is a member of the board of directors at the Saudi Bowling Federation, a specialist in corporate social responsibility in sports, and a sports columnist and journalist.
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