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Qatar makes bid to host Rugby League World Cup

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are all working to host more international sporting events as they diversify their economies. Rugby league has a following in Lebanon, but is relatively unknown in the region.
Qatar rugby

Qatar could potentially host a major international rugby tournament in 2025, according to a Wednesday report. The news comes as the Gulf sports rivalry is heating up.

France unexpectedly withdrew from hosting the 2025 Rugby League World Cup on Monday. On Wednesday, the sports governing body, International Rugby League, said they have received interest from Qatar, South Africa, Fiji and New Zealand to host the tournament in place of France, according to The Associated Press.

International Rugby League chairman Troy Grant said at a press conference on Wednesday that the body has yet to determine how viable Qatar or the other potential host countries are for hosting the tournament. 

“(It) gives me comfort that there’s interest in our sport, in our tournament, in our World Cup. That’s a positive," said Grant, per a recording sent to Al-Monitor by the International Rugby League. "How real or viable any or all of those options are, we have yet to make those assessments."

The current Rugby League World Cup format includes a competition for men’s, women’s and wheelchair teams.

Background: Rugby league is one of the two primary codes of rugby football, the other being rugby union. League is the most popular form of rugby in Australia, and also has a strong following in northern England and parts of the Pacific. However, union is far more popular throughout the rest of the world.

Though association football (soccer) is the dominant sport in the Middle East, rugby league has somewhat of a following in Lebanon. The sport was brought to the country by Australians of Lebanese descent.

There are also rugby union teams in Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and other parts of the region.

The Rugby League World Cup has historically been dominated by Australia. Many other countries’ teams also typically include many Australian players of foreign origins. Qatar does not have a national rugby league team.

Why it matters: Qatar’s efforts to host the Rugby League World Cup come amid the burgeoning sports rivalry in the Gulf. Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup men’s soccer tournament in November and December of last year. On Tuesday, Qatari royal Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani made a $6.2 billion offer to buy the English soccer team Manchester United.

Saudi Arabia is now seeking to host the 2030 men’s soccer World Cup. The kingdom has also poured billions of dollars into its LIV Golf league, Formula One racing, the purchase of English soccer team Newcastle United, and more in recent years.

Relatedly, Portuguese soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo joined the Saudi Pro League in December, become the highest paid athlete in the world in the process. His Argentine rival, Lionel Messi, is likewise rumored to be heading to Saudi Arabia.

Abu Dhabi also began hosting Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events in 2020.

In terms of rugby, Dubai hosts the annual Dubai Sevens rugby tournament.

Hosting the Rugby League World Cup could bring significant revenue to Qatar, though not as much as other sporting events. A total of 423,689 fans attended the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England, according to the sports website bwin. By comparison, around 1.6 million people attended the 2019 Rugby World Cup for men’s rugby union in Japan. The 2022 men’s soccer World Cup in Doha drew a whopping 3.4 million spectators.

Doha has several soccer stadiums from hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This could help Qatar's bid to host the Rugby League World Cup, since rugby and soccer fields are similar in size. 

Know more: The treatment of workers in Qatar was heavily criticized during the country’s years-long preparation for the FIFA World Cup.  

Editor's note: this article was updated on May 17, 2023 to include comments from International Rugby League. 

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