Could launch of sovereign fund make Kuwait the Gulf’s next football power?

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<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images</span></figcaption></p>
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<p>Money flowing out of the Gulf region has changed the face of football. Fans in the United Arab Emirates have seen Manchester City become the best team in the world, supporters in Qatar have had the World Cup and counterparts in Saudi Arabia can scarcely believe what is going on with their clubs. Kuwait, another rich Gulf state, has been quiet but may be ready to stir from its sporting slumber.</p>
<p>The country, which became independent from the United Kingdom in 1961, has a rich football history. Trevor Francis, who died this week, scored England’s only goal against Kuwait at the 1982 World Cup when the Blues, making their tournament debut long before their neighbours, arrived in Spain as Asian champions. Kuwait had also reached the quarter-finals of the Moscow Olympics two years previously, when they were beaten 2-1 by the Soviet Union.</p>
<p>The game with England was a gentle affair compared with what happened against France when the president of Kuwait’s football federation, Sheikh Fahad al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, marched down to the Valladolid pitch to protest against a France goal after a whistle from inside the stadium caused his players to stop. It was a sensational intervention and the episode ended with the referee disallowing the strike, but France went on to restore the 4-1 scoreline and it was the last time Kuwait made an international impact.</p>
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The president of the Kuwaiti Football Association, Sheikh Fahad al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, protests at the 1982 World Cup match between Kuwait and France. Photograph: AP

Now they have been overtaken on the pitch by Saudi Arabia, not unsurprisingly given the population and passion for football in that country, but also by Qatar and the UAE, states of similar sizes. These neighbours, especially those from Riyadh, have been spending billions and sending shockwaves through sport. Kuwait has comparable riches and the oldest sovereign wealth fund in the world. The Kuwait Investment Authority, set up in 1953, is also one of the biggest with $800bn to call upon, according to sovereign wealth fund tracker Global SWF. This is $100bn more than the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia which owns four of the country’s biggest clubs and Newcastle United as well as much of golf. Having the financial muscle is one thing; in Kuwait, using it is another because of the political situation.

In Riyadh or Doha, leaders can drive through plans but political battles between the ruling family of Kuwait and the powerful, in regional terms, national assembly makes it hard to get anything done. Divisions and infighting within the family don’t help and it has led to political gridlock and a lack of much-needed reforms in many sectors, with sport not regarded as a priority.

Talk to officials and they refer to the 1990 invasion at the hands of Iraq as another issue. Before Saddam Hussein sent his tanks across the border, Kuwait had been a vocal and proud exponent of Arab unity. Since, the country has been more hesitant to step forward into the international spotlight.

The times could be changing, however, with news that Kuwait wants to launch a sovereign fund called the Ciyada Development Fund. A government document said it would “accelerate the growth of the Kuwaiti economy, improve the quality of life and bolster transformation and progress in the various fields of development through strategic planning and effective implementation of major development projects”. It is the kind of language that has been seen and heard elsewhere in the region. A feasibility study is expected in the next few months.

A screen in Kuwait City shows the 2022 World Cup final from Qatar.

A screen in Kuwait City shows the 2022 World Cup final from Qatar. Photograph: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

It is not yet expected that Kuwaiti clubs will start bidding with Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli for players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema or Riyad Mahrez. That really would be putting the cart before the horse because the local league has declined in parallel with the national team.

Proud clubs such as Al-Qadsia and Al-Kuwait have trophy cabinets as full as those of their neighbours but have fallen behind on and especially off the pitch. Stadiums and training facilities don’t match up to those in Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi. A Fifa ban in 2015, for government interference in the running of the game, lasted for two years and hit the football scene hard, leading to less grassroots investment. Kuwait have not qualified for the next Asian Cup, which will take place in Qatar, after losing at home to Indonesia.

A new fund that considers sport is likely to regard hosting international events as more of a priority than bringing in big stars or buying overseas clubs. For Kuwait, it is more important to raise the country’s profile, improve the sporting infrastructure and give some life to a run-down industry. The foundations need a lot of care but, with the money potentially available, it may not be too long before Kuwait starts making its presence felt in a busy and crowded neighbourhood.

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