In Part 1, Carnwath documented the tremendous growth of MMA across MENA from the grassroots through amateur up to the elite, charting the vast potential for regional sport development. Here, in Part 2, she looks at how the relationship between sovereign funders and the sport’s top commercial entities might harness opportunities to facilitate thriving national sectors across MENA. 


The potential for overall sports development of MMA in GCC countries, backed by Sport Ministries and national funding, is untold. Models of how sector development may differ from other markets present in UAE and Bahrain.

Models of Sector Development in UAE and Bahrain

UAE Warriors has been able to flourish alongside UFC with the same broadcaster, while the state has invested in the amateur sport in its infancy, including international amateur championships on its soil. It has imported international MMA coaches to up the level of homegrown talent and increase participation, while the Middle East Fighting Championship provides both developmental competition opportunities for local talent and a regional stage for MENA athletes. This holistic approach, following the mold of Brazilian jiu-jitsu before it, shows that the UAE authorities are serious about the sport from the ground up.

Neighboring Bahrain’s investment in IMMAF Championships over consecutive years, driven by Sheikh Khalid who heads the National Olympic Committee, has not only spurred athlete development but provided a vehicle for broader sport development. This has produced an upskilled local workforce in the areas of event organization, officiating, coaching, and regulation for MMA. It has also provided opportunities for university students through volunteering and for new local businesses.

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President of Bahraini promotion BRAVE CF, Mohammad Shahid, commented: ‘’We have created the biggest sports ecosystem in Bahrain through a 360-degree solution: amateur talent, a sports media property, leading the development of the sport in governance and qualifying a workforce that could excel locally.’’

He highlights how through BRAVE working with the amateur leagues, “we have provided a professional pathway for these amateur athletes, understanding that if they excelled in their amateur careers, they would have a clear pathway to become superstars through the global platform that BRAVE CF provides. This platform has been enjoyed by the likes of Khamzat Chimaev, Ilia Topuria, Benoit St. Denis, Ikram Aliskerov (and) Muhammad Mokaev….

"As someone who’s worked on His Highness Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s vision for a few years, I have seen the achievements and developments that are taking MMA to new heights, regionally and globally”."

Qatar Taking the Torch

Saudi Arabia seems to be nurturing a similar evolution of the sport, while Qatar’s new MMA Committee is poised to ignite one, with the inaugural Qatar (MMA) Fighting Championships just announced for February.

The Global Association of Mixed Martial Arts (GAMMA) has been responsible for advising its new member the Qatar MMA Committee. President Alex Engelhardt outlines their ambition: “Their focus is to create clear development opportunities and pathways for the sport. Having the support of the Qatar Olympic Committee is extremely valuable and shows the intention of the MMA Committee in Qatar to work as part of the Olympic structure, aligned with the aims of GAMMA. It gives us possibilities for grassroots programs.”

This recognition also makes the organization of events easier for private promoters, with the Qatar MMA Committee mandated to sanction the professional sport, as it will do for ONE Championship in March.

Unifying Potential of the Arabic Language and the pan-Arab Market

Another distinct feature of the potential market is the broader reach of the Arabic language, with Modern Standard Arabic officially recognized across 31 countries, and spoken across a wider diaspora globally. Promoters, as they broadcast across Arab countries, should want to galvanize a growing pan-Arab audience.

To do so, they will want to evolve Arab stars that appeal to local identities, and additionally, avoid accusations of cultural imperialism that have been previously leveled at Western organizations by Asian promoters. Indeed, UFC President White has stated his expectation of a first major Middle Eastern champion in the next few years. To this end, international promoters will benefit from regional talent development structures across MENA, including smaller and mid-tier professional leagues, and should have a vested interest in more diverse MMA coverage (than in other markets), as essential components of the ecosystem.

The charting of athlete trajectories to the international stage is a key ingredient in the creation and commercialization of future stars. Currently, there is a gap here, as identified by Shahid, which creates an obstacle for Arab fighters in the furtherance of their careers, particularly non-English speakers.

For Zahi Ephrem, owner of Arabic–English website Arabs MMA,  “To attract Arab MMA fans, the goal of promoters should be to develop a strong MMA community and local stars. The Arab market is unified by language in a way that other territories are not, and this presents enormous, new audience potential."

Indeed, Arabic language speakers are currently unserved by MMA news and media content, despite indicators of demand. So, it will be interesting how media reporting of the sport will develop across MENA. Will coverage of the big shows become siloed according to their distinct broadcast deals? Or will promoters and government entities see a mutual benefit in broader, comprehensive coverage of emerging talent, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, from Egypt to Kuwait, alongside the stories of national amateur achievements?

According to Ephrem: “Arabic language broadcast deals and dedicated media platforms are crucial for the growth of MMA in the Arab world. They facilitate wider access to the sport, providing content in the native language that resonates with the local audience, fostering a deeper connection which in turn drives popularity and engagement…Understanding local preferences is also key to resonating with Arab audiences, including cultural sensitivities.”

PFL’s Vision in MENA

Jerome Mazet is PFL’s newly appointed General Manager for MENA, ahead of the organization’s launch event on February 24 in Riyadh. Citing a “significant fan base” and “huge appetite” for MMA locally, he sheds light on PFL’s approach to the market, signaling the promotion’s positive intent to spur broader growth:

 “We are not in the business of coming in a few days before a fight and leaving as soon as it is over. We are opening local offices in Riyadh, where we will be scouting, developing, and managing regional talents. We will also be investing in grassroots initiatives and are working with the various organizations involved in the sport of MMA, from the local gym to the MMA federations to grow the sport and engage with fans and sponsors.”

“As a global powerhouse in MMA, our mission is to lead the professionalization of MMA in MENA. We aim to attract and showcase the best fighters in the region by giving them a global platform to compete. The Champions from PFL MENA will subsequently have an avenue to join PFL Global, representing their countries, and participate in the Global League season, vying for both the championship title and a million-dollar prize. Our goal is to foster the development of the sport positively, while also ensuring that fighters enjoy increased opportunities.”

The Role of National Funders

With national and commercial entities sharing some mutual interests, what can state entities do to support the healthy development of regional MMA business?

Ephrem’s view is: “Public funders can play a pivotal role in supporting regional MMA promotions by investing in infrastructure, providing educational resources for all aspects of the sport, establishing fair and supportive regulations, and promoting ethical business practices. These steps would help to create a sustainable MMA ecosystem and protect local growth.”

For GAMMA president, Engelhardt: “Building the knowledge of the sport is key. The grassroots are the foundation of every sport and without this, you have no long-term high-profile athletes. Coaches, athletes, and federations understand that there are no shortcuts, and if we want to grow the sport we need to cooperate. Having kids involved in the sport also increases acceptance and knowledge about MMA. Many promotions are focused on the Middle East because of the investments made in big sports events in Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and Qatar. The main thing in the end is that these countries need to have their local heroes in the promotions, as this will increase interest.”