Compared with global markets, much of the development of sports stadiums in the Middle East and Africa was traditionally funded using smaller, private-sector interests. However, this began to change in the early- to mid- 2000s when Middle Eastern and African countries began being selected to host larger international competitions. While the average venue size for the regions hover around 30,000 spectators, the stadiums being constructed to meet the needs of a changing market are capable of hosting 75,000 spectators, and that number is growing every year. This means that larger and larger projects are taking place in these regions. These projects are also not limited to simply stadium construction and redesign, but also encompass the infrastructure necessary to host large international events.
For example, Qatar was selected to host the 2006 Asian Games as well as the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup, international soccer’s most prestigious tournament. Qatar had to erect a considerable amount of sporting infrastructure to host the 2006 Asian Games including a massive redevelopment of the Khalifa International Stadium. This redevelopment included doubling the stadium’s capacity to 40,000 and adding both a roof and an arch on the eastern side. Beyond hosting the Asian Games in 2006, the redevelopment of Khalifa Stadium has also made it a prime location to host other international competitions such as the 2011 Pan Arab Games, the 2019 World Athletics Championship, and the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup. This project also featured the construction of the athletes’ village for the Asian Games as well as its subsequent renovations for other international competitions.
One of the biggest risks in investing in such large scale stadium projects is uneven cash flow associated with the semi-regular or sporadic usage that comes with hosting these events. Some stadiums are used by local professional clubs throughout the year, but, in other cases, these stadiums would host a singular event or a handful of events per year. As a buffer, stadiums are often designed to be multi-use facilities. In Dubai, the Sevens Stadium was constructed in 2008 with a capacity of 44,000 spectators. Since its completion, this stadium hosts an annual stop on the international HSBC Rugby 7s World Series as well as soccer events. While the stadium itself was purpose-built to host this rugby event and boasts eight pitches, it also features other sporting surfaces such as multiple cricket pitches and basketball courts. This allows the stadium to expand its hosting capacity and increase off-season revenue.
However, several countries are also aiming their sights even higher, looking to gain international prestige through the ultimate international athletic competition. As such, Egypt recently announced its bid to host the 2036 Olympics, which would make it the first African nation to host the games. Currently in the process of formalizing and submitting their bid to host the games, Egypt has revealed plans to build a multimillion dollar sports complex in the new administrative capital called the Egypt International Olympic City. According to Waleed Abdel-Fattah, Managing Director at Hill International (Africa), much of the infrastructure needed to support the games is already in place through roads and housing. This means that the recent announcement of the Egypt International Olympic City could represent a key final step in Egypt’s bid to host the games. Ogaily and Abdel-Fattah also note that, due to challenges stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increased need to support and facilitate the online submission of documents and thus a significant investment in new IT infrastructure.
The result of hosting such large, international sporting competitions is that it introduced the public sector into the region’s sporting venue industry. Ultimately, capital is the biggest factor when it comes to creating stadiums large enough to host not only local fans, but also spectators from around the world. According to Akram Ogaily, Executive Consultant for Hill International (Middle East) and Abdel-Fattah, the development of these larger sports venues is dissimilar to the development of similar projects in other parts of the world. Particularly in the Middle East, amongst the Gulf States, the development plans for these venues are not limited in terms of cost, with the primary goal being to create a prestige facility that “reflect the status and image of the [country].” This also means that, whereas the construction of similar projects in other parts are done in multiple stages over the course of a few years, these projects are usually completed in whole, such as the Asian Games Village Project.
Additionally, new building technologies and better materials have led to not only bigger and more visually impressive stadiums, but also better functioning and more comfortable for spectators. BIM is being used extensively during the design and construction phases, which facilitates coordination between the engineering systems that are used by both design consultants and contractors. In terms of systems designed to make spectators more comfortable and provide protection from the Sun, many new stadiums in the Middle East are utilizing new air conditioning systems and new movable roofing systems. In Qatar, Al Bayt Stadium recently added a retractable roof ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
With a continual increase in the size and scope of venue projects in the Middle East and Africa, there has also been a similarly increasing focus on the infrastructure that supports them. Hosting large international sporting events comes with a massive influx of visitors, most of whom are short-term visitors who are not familiar with the area. This means that the infrastructure that supports these venues must be easily-accessible for both the local and visiting populations who are working and attending the event. In the view of Ogaily and Abdel-Fattah, the design and construction of this surrounding infrastructure and landscape facilities should be considered equal to the design and construction of the stadium itself, especially when larger projects are being considered. By providing sufficient parking for cars as well as access to public transportation, these projects are not only safer and more accessible, but also consider the best possible urban land uses.
Much has changed in the landscape of sporting and venue design during the last three decades in the Middle East. Whether it’s soccer, tennis, racing, rugby, or cricket, more and more international competitions are taking place. All eyes will be on the Middle East this Fall as Qatar hosts the FIFA World Cup. At the same time, Egypt will be finalizing its bid to host the 2036 Olympics, hoping to learn and grow from the lessons that are learned from Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup and other similar projects throughout the two regions. In time, proper design and maintenance of the facilities being constructed now will afford a steadier revenue stream and provide a centerpiece for future growth and investment.