The seven big Gulf sports questions of 2017
Al Arabiya English takes a look at the seven biggest questions all Gulf sports enthusiasts will be asking themselves come 2017
From Leicester City winning the English Premier League to Donald Trump securing the US presidency, the past 12 months have produced more shocks than a policeman’s taser gun at Euro 2016. With that in mind, Al Arabiya English would never be foolish enough to make predictions for next year, yet what we are willing to do is pose the seven major sporting questions that will be resolved in the Arab World in 2017.
1. Will Kuwaiti sports federations be welcomed in from the cold?
Kuwait was suspended by the International Olympic Committee in October 2015 for government interference, with Fifa and numerous other international sports bodies quickly following suit. The result was Kuwaitis had to participate in last summer’s Olympics as independent athletes and have been banned from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup. The country’s cabinet claim recent reforms should spell the end to the international ban, but will sport’s global bodies deem the proposals sufficient?
2. Can Qatar use home advantage to become first nation to defend the Gulf Cup in 14 years?
Another knock-on effect of Kuwait’s ostracisation from world sport is their loss of hosting rights to the biennial Gulf Cup of Nations. The 2017 edition, originally planned for 2016, will instead be held in Qatar as the gas rich country aims to become the first team in 14 years to successfully defend their title. Saudi Arabia were the last side to win back-to-back trophies, topping a round-robin group in 2003 before the tournament's latter stages switched to a knock-out format.
3. Can Gulf athletes add to Olympic achievements at the IAAF World Championships?
The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro proved the Arab World’s most successful Olympiad to date, with eight nations sharing 15 medals. At the IAAF World Championships next August, Kenyan-born Bahraini Ruth Jebet will be looking to complement the Olympic gold she won in the 3,000m steeplechase, while Qatari high-jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim is intent on making good on his promise to better his Olympic silver. The competition takes place in London between Aug 4-13.
4. Will Manny Pacquiao finally fight in the UAE?
It has been a staple of the Middle East rumor mill for close to a decade, but with the Filipino now aged 38, this could be the year a dust-up in the desert finally happens. The career of the welterweight champion turned senator is winding down and with the Emirates having long coveted a Vegas-style fight night, the pieces could fall into place this year. The UAE is home to more than 700,000 of Pacquiao’s compatriots and the clamor for him to fight in front of them is high. Finances are unlikely to be an issue, so much will depend on who the Pac-Man chooses as his next opponent. His second of two fights in 2017, slated for September, has already been discussed.
5. Can Saudi Arabia qualify for their first World Cup since 2006?
As of today, only one team has secured their place at the FIFA World Cup: hosts Russia. Yet by November 14, 2017, the remaining 31 countries will be confirmed, including the four or five Asian nations. At the midway point of AFC qualifying, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have a realistic chance of representing the Middle East. Saudi have not qualified for a World Cup since 2006, but sit joint-top of their group alongside Japan. Australia and the UAE, the latter of whom last appeared at a World Cup in 1990, are one point off the lead knowing that only the top two secure automatic berths and third-place must contest a play-off. The next round of matches is March 23.
6. Will Qatar agree a deal to join the F1 calendar?
The future of several Formula One host nations — such as Malaysia, Italy and Brazil — are in doubt. Combine that with the desire of the sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, for ever-more races and all solutions point to f1 expanding into countries of vast wealth keen to promote their brand. Azerbaijan hosted its first grand prix in 2016 and Qatar has long been touted to desire a spot on the calendar too. While no race would take place for at least a year or two, this could be the year the Gulf secures -- on paper at least -- its third grand prix, complementing that of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
7. Will Omar Abdulrahman finally leave the UAE for Europe?
The Al Ain playmaker has been linked with a move to Europe for years, undertaking a trial with Manchester City in 2012 and seeing an official approach by Arsenal rebuffed the following year. The 25-year-old Emirati has maintained he dreams of playing on the continent, but has so far refrained from pushing for a transfer. Having reached the final of the Asian Champions League this year, it was thought he would move on should Al Ain triumph. However, having slipped to defeat, Abdulrahman could now decide to try once more to bring continental silverware to the Garden City club that he holds so dearly.