In December, RFRSH Entertainment is bringing one of the year’s biggest Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournaments, the BLAST Pro Series Global Finals, to the Kingdom of Bahrain. It’s an unfamiliar location for many esports fans, but the Bahraini government sees a promising future in esports.
Cities and countries around the world have been interested in competitive gaming for reasons including economic windfalls, long-term investments, and potential tourism. Bahrain isn’t interested because of a potential influx of tourists, though. Bahrain wants a distraction from the bad press that surrounds the country’s human rights record.
WIN.gg talked with experts in the fields of Middle Eastern sports and politics to discuss the implications of the upcoming CSGO tournament and what could be in store for esports’ future
Sports and politics have, in many ways, always been intertwined. But while the President of the United States will invite championship teams to the White House for an easy photo-op, other governments can use sports for something much bigger.
For countries with questionable human rights records, sports serve as a valuable public relations tool. For a nation like Saudia Arabia, a massive boxing match featuring big names like Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua in Diriyah, or a big WWE pro wrestling event in Jeddah, is a surefire way to get the country in the headlines for something positive rather than for stories on assassinating journalists and looking to behead women’s rights activists.
This fact isn’t lost on media and those who keep up with world news. Athletes and executives are often forced to dance their way around these subjects when doing the press rounds, and there’s no way to elegantly dismiss these abuses.
More often than not, these trips wind up being a disaster in this regard. But the lure of tens of millions of dollars is just too much for most athletes and promoters to pass up.
According to Karim Zidan, a journalist who has covered combat sports and politics in the Middle East and Russia for The Guardian and SB Nation, sporting events in Bahrain serve the same purpose that they do in Saudi Arabia. They present a glowingly positive image of the country that doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.
“It is a soft power strategy basically, it is not supposed to have any quantitative results,” Zidan told WIN.gg. “More of a qualitative effect in that it promotes Bahrain as an evolving society that promotes sports, rather than a repressive regime.”
That sentiment was echoed by Aya Majzoub, a researcher for the Human Rights Watch focused on Lebanon and Bahrain.
“Bahrain is once again using its association with sport to whitewash its image and to present itself on an international stage as a progressive, liberal, fun, cool, hip place which is far from reality,” Majzoub told WIN.gg. “The reality is that it’s a repressive state. It’s a state that targets anyone who dares speak out against the royal family.”
The BLAST Pro Series Global Finals is far from the first sporting event to take place in Bahrain. The nation has been looking to establish itself as a competitive hub in the Middle East and Asia, hosting international events like the Asian Games alongside strong man competitions and combat sports. However, the biggest event each year is the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix.
The race garners international attention each year for both the high-velocity action and the inevitable protests that surrounds it.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is one of the few times each year that Bahrain receives widespread international attention. Activists within the country see that as an opportunity to garner global support for the push for democracy within the country and have taken to protesting it each year. The government is not especially keen on letting their message be hijacked in this way, which has resulted in violent crackdowns on an annual basis.
This practice has evolved over time and today, and even speaking out on the event can draw the ire of authorities.
The most recent example of this surrounds Najah Yusuf, a woman who was arrested for making negative posts about the event on Facebook. She spent three years in prison as a result, during which time she says she was sexually assaulted, tortured, and coerced into signing a prepared confession.
“The Bahraini government has tried to say that Yusuf’s conviction had nothing to do with Formula One, but we reviewed the evidence that the public prosecution submitted against her and the criminal court’s judgment,” Majzoub said. “We found that both of them mention her social media posts expressing her opposition to the Formula One racing in Bahrain as one of the reasons for her arrest and conviction.”
Yusuf is far from alone in making this type of allegation against the nation's government, and they form a cloud over every sporting event held in Bahrain. That hasn’t deterred sporting organizations from putting together events there and it hasn’t forced any kind of course correction from the Bahraini royal family, who still see enormous value in bringing sporting events to the kingdom.
While hosting an event in a country with a questionable human rights record doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing or supporting it, that’s a difficult line to toe in Bahrain.
“The Bahraini royal family is very, very powerful,” Majzoub said. “Many ministers are part of the royal family, many judges are part of the royal family. Members of the royal family have very important positions in all branches of government...they have used this power to suppress dissent and commit some very grave human rights abuses”
Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, one of the sons of Bahrain’s king, is one of the greatest examples of this.
Nasser is an avid sports fan, which has been highlighted in his private life with his participation in Ironman competitions and his social media presence that is largely built around his athletic endeavors. It has also been reflected in his public life as president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and the chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports.
The Supreme Council for Youth and Sports seems to have had some role in arranging the BLAST Pro Series Global Finals. The initial press release announcing the event contains a quote from H.E. Ayman Tawfiq Almoayyed, a minister for the council.
What makes this connection particularly troubling is that Sheikh Nasser himself has been accused by multiple individuals of taking part in human rights abuses.
According to The Guardian, a 2012 report by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights found that two men alleged that Nasser was “personally involved” in beating and torturing them. The two men are considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. In a separate case, a man who moved from Bahrain to England has been pushing British authorities to take action against Nasser for similar allegations.
Nasser denies the allegations and no action has been taken against Nasser by Britain.
It is currently unclear how the BLAST Pro Series Global Finals found their way to Bahrain and whether RFRSH worked with Nasser to make it a reality. Though RFRSH has taken the BLAST Pro Series around the world, it has typically landed in areas with strong Counter-Strike communities. Both Majzoub and Zidan stated that there is a strong likelihood that the Bahraini government had a hand in bringing the tournament to the country.
After initially responding to inquiries regarding the event from WIN.gg, RFRSH stopped responding after being asked about how the BLAST Pro Series Global Finals landed in Bahrain.
RFRSH is far from the only esports player that is striking deals with Middle Eastern monarchs. Event organizers both big and small are flocking to the region of late under the exact same circumstances as traditional sports entities.
“It is akin to any form of sportwashing taking place among authoritarian regimes at the moment,” Zidan said. “The only key difference is that governments now recognize esports as a legitimate soft power strategy equivalent to popular, traditional sports.”
For the most part, the traditional sports well has been tapped. International sporting bodies are either willing to work with these governments, or they aren’t. That has countries across the Middle East looking towards esports to bolster their entertainment offerings.
Earlier this year, Business Insider reported that Saudi Arabian Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud met with Twitch executives to discuss esports. In November, Riot Games announced that it will be hosting a massive League of Legends event, The Nexus, in Riyadh. Riot lists the General Authority for Entertainment, a government entity attached to Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative, as one of its partners.
The United Arab Emirates, a country with a poor human rights record of its own, is also joining the fray.
The UAE has already been leveraging its esports connections to bolster its international reputation, as was seen with Girlgamer Festival organizer Fernando Pereira praising the country’s “incredible gender equality work.” The UAE has a number of draconian laws regarding women’s rights, with the highest profile examples of this being multiple international incidents surrounding women being sentenced to jail for having extramarital sex after reporting cases of rape to authorities.
In each of these cases, tournament organizers are knowingly or unknowingly helping these governments draw attention away from human rights abuses. This is something that likely violates their own internal policies, potentially stands as an affront to international business standards, and violates basic human decency.
“Most companies have some sort of internal policy that requires them to consider the human rights impacts of their activities and conduct the necessary due diligence to mitigate adverse impact,” Majzoub said. “There are international agreements that bind the organizers to really be aware of what the human rights context they’re working in is and work to address those concerns.”
Though 2019 will see just a handful of events take place in the Middle East, if these prove to be a success they are likely to become a much more regular occurrence moving forward. And all precedents suggest that this will be the case.
The WWE takes a biannual PR drubbing each time it goes to Saudi Arabia, but its 10-year, $450 million deal with the country keeps it coming back. Though the specifics of Formula One’s relationship with Bahrain are unknown, there are no signs of the organization pulling out of the country despite the repeated issues surrounding it. Odds are that esports organizers that take up operations in the area are reaping a significant financial reward of their own.
With tournament organizers seemingly on board with this, there are few other failsafes in place to put moral standards before money.
There is no governing body to create a code of ethics for teams. This goes doubly so players, who lack a singular and powerful association reaching across varied esports titles to bring concerns forward.
Even if a significant number of players or organizations refused to take part in an event, Counter-Strike’s talent pool is deep enough that tournament organizers could likely find an ample number of willing alternatives. And even if Counter-Strike as a whole became untenable, there are plenty of other esports titles out there for use.
The last hope would be enough fans banding together and changing the algebra for both organizers like RFRSH and the countries courting them. Countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates ultimately see value in esports because there are enough people watching to make it worth their investment. If fans came together and pushed back against this by refusing to watch or otherwise take part in these events, neither the organizer nor its host country would benefit from the arrangement.
For now, organizers have ample financial reason to strike deals with interested governments in spite of human rights concerns, and the potential risks don't seem great enough to deter them.