Mixed martial arts (MMA) is exploding across the Middle East accelerated by substantial investment amidst a broader pattern of development.

With Saudi Arabia positioned as the new Las Vegas for pro boxing superfights, it is not surprising that it has invested in its first MMA property, the US-based Professional Fighters League, to the tune of $100 million from its sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF). Ditto for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) Saudi debut scheduled for June.

Saudi Arabia is not the first Gulf state to invest in MMA or combat sports. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands as a forerunner, with avid Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and UFC fan, Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan founding the ADCC World Submission Fighting Championships in 1998.

He not only delivered a global platform for the nation’s submission wrestling but also developed the grappling arts as the UAE’s national sport, rolled out across schools and universities. Before UFC’s 2018 sale to international entertainment agency Endeavour, UAE’s Flash Entertainment held a 10% stake in the property.

However, the UFC only visited the country twice before its exclusive 5-year deal in 2019 with state-owned Abu Dhabi Media, through the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism. The agreement reportedly sees UFC paid $25 million per event. To boot, UAE’s investment into a purpose-built arena on Yas Island facilitated a “Fight Island” during the pandemic that enabled MMA to continue broadcasting, when most sports had stopped. This delivered the UFC the most successful financial year in its history.

Qatar has also now entered the game with its Media City inking a contract with Singapore-based international series ONE Championship. As PFL plans events across MENA, ONE is to launch its expansion into Qatar in March. While Saudi state-owned MBC GROUP holds the exclusive rights to PFL’s regional programming, the UFC has launched its first Arabic-language OTT platform to complement its linear packages and ONE has committed to a multi-year broadcast partnership with Qatar-owned beIN Sports.

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Homegrown MMA

However, while it is the big leagues that have grabbed the headlines, there has also been significant development in homegrown and grassroots MMA across MENA.

Jordanian Desert Force was the forerunner between 2010 and 2015 and reported 25 million viewership on state-owned broadcaster MBC at launch and subsequent status as the channel’s second most popular sports program. Today, the most prominent regional promoters are BRAVE CF, the Arab world’s largest MMA export founded by Bahrain’s Sheikh Khaled bin Hamad in 2016 and broadcast across 84 countries, and UAE Warriors, which has picked up pace under Palms Sports since 2019 with over 40 domestic events in four years.

Like UFC, UAE Warriors benefitted from the country’s infrastructure during the pandemic and was also able to continue broadcasting on Abu Dhabi television. Other notable local promotions across MENA include Qadya MMA (Egypt), Berbère FC (Algeria), Fera MMA (Kuwait), and Cedar FC (Lebanon).

Amateur MMA and the Grassroots: Building a Sport

But it’s not just in the professional arena; MMA has been showing growth. Deeper roots are taking hold at a grassroots level across the Middle East and Arab world.

One driver has been the march of the amateur MMA movement since 2018 which has seen national federations established as part of a push for Olympic inclusion. Organizing national teams and championships, federations exist across Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi, Tunisia, UAE, Palestine, Tunisia, Qatar, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait (in varied stages of maturity).

A number of these are formally recognized or established by their NOCs and Sports Ministries, enabling funding. Bahrain and UAE have hosted four senior World Championships, an Amateur Super Cup, and an Asian Championships since 2017, while UAE currently holds the three-year rights for the IMMAF Youth World Championships.

Female competitors have been nurtured for the first time in conservative countries, including Saudi Arabia. Technical rules, coaching, and officiating education are now available in Arabic language (thanks to forerunners like Hadi Mohamedali, who translated the professional Unified Rules last year), further stimulating sports development and sector growth.

Expansion in recreational participation is signaled through UFC Gyms across MENA, with as many as 15 in Morocco.

Recent Explosion

As 2023 progressed, so did a surge in momentum. Within four weeks between November and December, a flurry of activity materialized in the region: The new developmental league Middle East Fighting Championship (broadcast on MBC) held two events in UAE.

IMMAF’s amateur Asian Championships MMA took place alongside BRAVE CF at BRAVE International Combat Week in Bahrain, presenting regional national teams. The Saudi Games also showcased amateur MMA, while GAMMA’s World Championships in Thailand provided further medals opportunities and successes for regional amateurs.

The Qatar Olympic Committee established an MMA Committee advised by international body GAMMA, as ONE Championship announced its first event in Qatar in March. Then, PFL created excitement by signing its first Saudi fighter, Malik Basahel.

Other new arrivals included Cypriot promoter CGC announcing an amateur event in Riyadh for February and Ukraine’s Zaruba Fight Night relocating to UAE for a 2024 kick-off. And the trend has shown no sign of abating in 2024.

Meanwhile, a fertile fanbase for the homegrown sport is not only captured in broadcast numbers, but in the popularity of Arabic language social media accounts, such as MMA بالعربي and LCS Fight, and news sites such as Arabs MMA gaining fresh impetus to keep on top of the swell.

Bahraini public relations specialist and former BRAVE PR, Shaikha Almawlani captures the spirit of this tide by saying: “We stand at the precipice of a new era, the tapestry shimmers with the promise of a future where sports transcend competition…. Forget the tired tropes of oil barons and opulent stadiums; this is a saga woven with the grit of grassroots heroes, the triumphs of trailblazing women, and the dreams of a generation yearning to redefine the playing field.”

National Visions and the Potential for Sport and Sector Development

With such huge potential, what might the growth trajectory of the sport look like in MENA? Elsewhere, local industry growth has been invariably stifled (though in other ways aided) by monopolistic, or at times oligopolistic, commercial forces in a regulatory vacuum.

As an outsider sport, lacking formal recognition in many countries, MMA generally does not receive public support. Coverage on the leading MMA news sites is linked to competitive licensing and partnership deals, where fees pose a high barrier to market entry. The UFC fighter antitrust case is symptomatic of industry structure, as is the international gig economy workforce, for whom opportunities deplete with each promotional merger or buyout.

Certainly, different conflicts of interest can arise around ubiquitous sovereign investment in sport, and it would be an oversight not to mention well-documented labor rights issues in the Middle East. But focussing on the sport and business development of MMA, longer-term state visions provide untold opportunities.

According to sports consultancy, Portas: The Middle East landscape differs. Governments are pushing the development of sports, to benefit the country socially and economically … major events in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE are examples of where the public sector will support across the value chain.” 

Saudi’s longer national vision for sport is exemplified by its Sport for All program (for improving the nation’s health) under its 2030 plan to spark business and industry, create jobs, and grow the Saudi economy. While critics point to the limited success rate of GCC mega projects in delivering deeper local development, judging by the flourishing of grassroots MMA regionally and thriving models in Bahrain and UAE, the potential seems vast.

So, how might the relationship between sovereign funders and the sport’s top commercial entities work to boost the development of flourishing national sectors for MMA across MENA? And how might regional sector growth boost the success of the top international promoters?

In Part 2, Carnwath gains insight from MMA industry figures, BRAVE President, Mohammad Shahid; General Manager of PFL MENA, Jerome Mazet; GAMMA President Alex Engelhardt; and owner of pioneering Arabs MMA news site, Zahi Ephrem.

Izzy Carnwath is the former director of brand and communications for the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation and now provides independent public relations and business management services for sport, with HEXAGONE MMA as a recent client.