"And they've got one hell of a youth problem. Kids are restless and bored, and sport is something young people can be kept busy at."
Talk flows in the Persian Gulf as freely as oil. Saudi Arabia, so the scuttlebutt has it, is building sports cities that are opulent beyond the wildest Western dreams. The emirates are rumored to be spending millions on British coaches. Before it went to war with Iran, Iraq was said to be working secretly with the East Germans to produce a stable of steroided superathletes. Certainly the Iraqis are serious about sports; they spend more per capita on athletics than any other country, including the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
Driving through Manama in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow with Shaikh Esa bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, secretary-general of Bahrain's Supreme Council for Youth and Sport, one gets a clearer view. The Khalifas are closely related to the Saudi ruling family and have run Bahrain since the 18th century; Shaikh Esa, a quiet, shy, slightly built man, is a nephew of the current amir, Shaikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa. The secretary-general is going to visit his volleyball hall, which was first used for the 1979 Pan Asian Volleyball championships. Its golden geodesic dome glitters in the sun next to the slips of dhow builders constructing their craft with curved ribs carved out of tree trunks, as they have done for centuries. Outside the dome, two air-conditioning units the size of heavy tanks—the only size locally available—are bolted to a concrete slab.
"Our building is quite modest," says Shaikh Esa as he walks around the dome. "It seats 2,300 and has a training room and dining facilities. It is big enough to use for basketball and team handball as well as volleyball. We are smarter and thriftier than we were a few years ago. Then, just for prestige, we would have built another hall for basketball next door." The building cost $2 million, twice as much as a similar building would in the U.S. because of the necessity of importing labor and materials.
Shaikh Esa is known as the "sports shaikh"; in Arab states important areas of governmental, business and social activity are often relegated to a shaikh to oversee, and Shaikh Esa's fief is athletics. Like most royalty in the Gulf, he was educated abroad; he earned a degree in chemical engineering at Southampton University and became a devotee of British soccer. Still a fan, he will call up a friend the minute he receives the First Division results on his home telex. "Thought you'd like to know," he'll say at 4 a.m., "Spurs and Palace drew 1-1."
A former Gulf table-tennis champ and an avid tennis player, Shaikh Esa's views on sports are those often heard around the Arab world. "Our younger generation has grown up without knowing the lean times," he says. "Seventy percent of our population is under 20, and although education is catching up fast, our youngsters have little to do. They're restless and undirected. We think that sports can change that.
"Even more important, sports represents a way for us to get to know people from other countries. We Gulf Arabs were rather insulated, even from one another, only a few short years ago. The emphasis on travel for national and club sporting teams has had more to do with our increased political awareness than all the ministry-level talks in the world."
The volleyball hall is situated in a section of the city considered lower-class, and the Shaikh offers a small apology. "I always eat lunch at the Gulf Hotel," he explains, "and so I said, 'Put it where I can check the progress of the construction.' " Royal whim still prevails in the shaikhdoms of the Gulf.
While Bahrain has moderated its athletic building program, the Saudis are still in the deep end of the pool. They are in the process of creating three "Olympic" sports complexes, which will cost from $500 million to more than a billion dollars apiece. In Riyadh, the capital and business center of the country, they have already finished a three-pool swimming hall modeled on the one Munich built for the 1972 Olympics. A five-stop elevator carries divers up the tower alongside the diving pool while a compressed-air mechanism blows bubbles into the water to cushion their entry. The floor of the training pool can be hydraulically raised and lowered, and the main pool is equipped with $500,000 Swiss timing and control mechanisms. An indoor sports hall has also been completed. The price for both halls was more than $30 million, but the Saudis liked them so much they ordered two more pairs, one for Jeddah, another for Dammam.
The Riyadh complex also is scheduled to be the site of an 80,000-seat stadium. A sports training institute is currently under construction, and the 153-acre site will eventually include a velodrome, a hotel and a motel, a sports clinic, areas for equestrian sports and shooting, a theater, an auditorium, a museum, a social club and a mosque. It is a project of such scope that it would require half of Riyadh's present electric generating capacity for air conditioning alone, and will cost an estimated $1.5 billion when completed. But even the Saudis are economizing: they've cut $25 million from the bill by eliminating travertine marble floors included in the original design.