Soft power through combat sports: The Abu Dhabi blueprint
Jiu-jitsu is the national sport in the United Arab Emirates but it is far more than that. Karim Zidan outlines how the country's commitment to martial arts is one of the country's most successful examples of wielding soft power and political influence through sports.
On June 21, 2023, the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates played host to a carefully curated cast of martial arts icons. Their purpose? To unveil a brand new combat sports event: the Abu Dhabi Extreme Championships (ADXC).
Touted as Abu Dhabi’s contribution to the world of martial arts, ADXC is a cage-based event that combines Brazilian jiu-jitsu—a grappling system whereby competitors use various techniques to subvert attacks through chokes and joint locks—and other grappling arts into a single, competitive form.
However, there is more to this new organisation than meets the eye.
While officials from United Arab Emirates (UAE) have long argued that their advocacy and patronage for combat sports was about instilling discipline, fostering self-confidence and encouraging healthy lifestyles, there is a case to be made that the country's commitment to martial arts—especially jiu-jitsu—is among UAE's most successful examples of wielding soft power and political influence through sports.
Unlike other combat sports organisations such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), ADXC is owned and operated by the International Vision Investment, a private investment firm based in the UAE and operating in partnership with the Abu Dhabi government. The firm is chaired by Abdel Moneim Al Hashemi, who also happens to be chairman of the national jiu-jitsu federation, further underscoring the organisation’s alignment with the local government.
The championship is set to launch on October 20 as part of Abu Dhabi Showdown Week—a multi-day event organised by the Emirate’s Department of Culture and Tourism that also features an annual Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) show.
“[ADXC] will once again attract enthusiasts from around the world to Abu Dhabi, the global capital of martial arts,” Al Hashemi said during the press conference that was streamed on YouTube. “This event reflects the UAE’s commitment to supporting sports and their top athletes globally.
“The championship aims to make an unprecedented impact on the sector, expanding horizons and solidifying Abu Dhabi's leading position in combat sports."
Over the past 25 years, the UAE capital has sought to establish itself as an innovator and leading hub for combat sports. Jiu-jitsu is the country’s national sport and is practiced in hundreds of schools. Military and police forces have also incorporated jiu-jitsu techniques in their training. Abu Dhabi is also home to some of jiu-jitsu’s most prestigious events and remains the only Arab nation to host a UFC event.
At the heart of this combat sports legacy lies a narrative that traces its roots to an Emirati royal—a story that helps reveal the true extent of their influence in the martial arts landscape.
The jiu-jitsu sheikh
In 1993, Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed al Nahyan—the son of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE—fell in love with combat sports after watching the inaugural UFC event.
The tournament marked the introduction of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to the wider martial arts landscape. Since then, it has become the fastest growing martial art in the world, attracting the likes of Sheikh Tahnoun, who began training jiu-jitsu while completing his university degree in San Diego, California.
Upon his return to the UAE, Sheikh Tahnoun founded the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), a martial arts organisation that would serve as the foundation of the emirate’s combat sports aspirations. By 1998, the Emirati royal launched the ADCC Submission Fighting World Championships, a biannual international grappling competition that would grow to become the gold standard in modern submission grappling.
Gradually, Sheikh Tahnoun underwent the process of popularising jiu-jitsu in the UAE. He helped establish a national jiu jitsu federation, known as the UAEJJF, and encouraged the UAE government to invest in infrastructure such as training centres, academies, and jiu-jitsu-specific facilities.
His ambitions received a significant boost when Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, Sheikh Tahnoun’s brother and current UAE ruler, designated jiu-jitsu as the country’s national sport incorporating the sport into the local educational system in 2008. It is now mandatory in police forces, as well as in the military.
"I believe, myself, that jiu-jitsu is very important, and that is why my son is learning jiu-jitsu," Sheikh Mohamed said to a Chinese television station during the inaugural World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup in 2009.
"I practice this, and I let my son [Sheikh Zayed bin Mohamed bin Zayed] practice it, and I noticed that after two years of practicing it, his personality changed. And if I invest it in my son, I will invest it in my country. Before the year 2015, we will have 500 schools in Abu Dhabi and every one of them will be learning jiu-jitsu."
From spiritual father of combat sports to Deputy Ruler of Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Tahnoun’s ambitions for combat sports did not end with his investment in jiu-jitsu. He helped establish several other combat sports federations and helped facilitate a deal in 2010 that saw Flash Entertainment, an Abu Dhabi based sports promotion company purchase a minority stake in Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC at the time. (Note: Flash Entertainment sold its share in the UFC to current owner Endeavor in 2018).
Yet over the next few years, Sheik Tahnoun’s influence would expand far beyond his combat sports patronage. He has served as national security advisor to the UAE since 2016 and holds senior positions in several high-profile ventures in the Emirates, including chairing Abu Dhabi's state holding company ADQ and the country’s largest lender First Abu Dhabi Bank.
Earlier this year, Sheikh Tahnoun was elevated to Deputy Ruler of Abu Dhabi and was named chair of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the main sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates’ capital worth 790 billion USD —a sign of his growing influence as a key member of the UAE’s ruling family.
As a significant figure in Middle Eastern politics, Sheikh Tahnoun has been involved in various controversies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he was involved in a botched deal to resell Russia's vaccine to other countries at double its original market price. He is also known as the UAE’s 'spy chief' and is a key figure behind the country’s coordinated spyware attacks on dissidents and political targets.
Despite Sheikh Tahnoun’s extensive resume and influential roles in various sectors, he continues to be known as the spiritual father of combat sports in the UAE—a testament to the power of sports as a tool for soft power.
The strong jiu-jitsu link between Brazil and the UAE
Earlier this year, Renzo Gracie—a Brazilian jiu jitsu legend who coached Sheikh Tahnoun and built a subsequent relationship with UAE ruler Sheikh Mohamed—launched his first affiliate academy outside of the United States in Dubai.
Ahead of the grand opening, Gracie, a descendent of the sport’s founding father, was interviewed by the Emirates’ state-run newspaper, where he celebrated the ‘unforgettable’ investment that the UAE’s ruling family made in combat sports.
“This country makes me very proud,” Gracie told The National. “Because I’ve been inside the house of the royal family for 27 years, almost 28 years. I see their main concern is with their people, with their country, with making their country better, improving life around them for everyone. Also, to help other countries, to help other cultures. It’s an amazing people, an amazing family.”
Gracie later claimed that the UAE’s development of the sport of jiu-jitsu—from establishing professional leagues and rulesets to adopting jiu jitsu in the curricula of public schools in several Emirates—has influenced Brazil to consider implementing similar programs.
Although the interview aimed to promote the Renzo Gracie Academy in Dubai, it unexpectedly shed light on the significant political and social advantages the UAE has gained from its commitment to combat sports.
After dedicating many years, sometimes even decades, to coaching members of the Al Nahyan royal family, Gracie has now assumed the role of an official spokesperson for the family's interests in jiu-jitsu. In this capacity, he highlights their accomplishments and portrays them as benevolent and disciplined statesmen rather than as leaders of an oppressive monarchy. This serves as a classic example of how sports can be employed to cleanse and manage a reputation, particularly for authoritarian governments.
Gracie further expanded on the UAE's supposed use of sports to support other nations. He mentioned that the UAE is home to the largest community of expatriate Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors, many of whom find employment in local gyms. Additionally, some of these instructors are enlisted to provide training to police and military personnel. This highlights the fact that Brazilian jiu jitsu serves not just as an element of the UAE's soft power strategies but also plays a crucial role in its broader diplomatic endeavors.
The bonds fostered by Abu Dhabi with Brazil through jiu-jitsu have arguably contributed to the enhancement of trade relations and political connections between the two countries. This became particularly evident during the visit of Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva to Abu Dhabi in April, where he received a warm welcome from Sheikh Mohamed.
"The partnership between us is supported by our splendid connections in many different fields, and is evident in the expressive numbers of our trade and cooperation in sports and artificial intelligence,” Lula in an official government statement.
UAE also exercises soft power through Manchester City
The UAE has a history of effectively using sports as a tool for diplomacy and soft power projection.
Arguably the most prominent example is Manchester City, an English Premier League football team that was initially purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), a private equity firm owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Mansour is the younger brother of Sheikh Mohamed and Sheikh Tahnoun and serves as the vice-president of the UAE. City is now owned by Newton Investment and Development LLC, another investment company run by Sheikh Mansour.
Under Sheikh Mansour's leadership, Manchester City has undergone a remarkable transformation, becoming one of the most successful teams in the world of sports. This achievement has been made possible through substantial investments and abundant resources, which have attracted top-tier players and coaches to the club.
In the last 12 years, City has secured seven Premier League titles, with five of them coming in the past six years, and finally clinched the coveted UEFA Champions League title earlier this year. Consequently, this sporting success has significantly bolstered Abu Dhabi's geopolitical influence and enhanced its global reputation.
Rather than being viewed primarily as an absolute monarchy with a history of human rights issues, such as transnational repression, surveillance, and limitations on free expression and media, Abu Dhabi's accomplishments in the realm of sports have played a significant role in rebranding the nation as an attractive destination for investments, business ventures, and tourism.
Combat sports as a tool for identity and hyper-masculinity
However, Manchester City's role in the UAE's soft power strategy is fundamentally distinct from the advantages gained through the Emirates' investments in combat sports.
In the realm of combat sports like jiu-jitsu, figures such as Sheikh Tahnoon and other members of the royal family have been able to project notions of strength and hyper-masculinity in a society largely dominated by men. This approach bears resemblance to what Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, accomplished in Brazil by aligning himself with legends of MMA and jiu-jitsu. It also aligns with the tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has used combat sports such as judo and sambo to convey an aura of strength and stability on the global stage.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump, too, leveraged the UFC and its roster of macho fighters to set himself apart from his political adversaries.
The UAE, being a patriarchal society with nearly 50 per cent of its population falling within the 15 to 35 age group, has a significant demographic of young, impressionable men who can be influenced and moulded through combat sports and other officially endorsed activities.
Jiu-jitsu is an ideal platform for the UAE’s form of sports socialisation. The sport caters to a more traditional view of masculinity——one where men aim to gain physical dominance through chokes and submissions. It is also predominantly practised by men in the UAE, despite strides made towards gender equality in the country.
The UAE's commitment to combat sports is not only a reflection of the country's national policy but also an integral part of its identity. Among these combat sports, jiu-jitsu stands out as a shining example. It has seamlessly integrated into Emirati society and is proudly recognised as the nation's official sport, with approximately 200,000 Emiratis actively participating in the discipline.
Furthermore, jiu-jitsu has become the sport of choice for Emirati royalty, spanning multiple generations, and they have received training from some of the world's most esteemed coaches.
An important aspect of the competition with Saudi Arabia
This strategic investment in combat sports can also be understood within the context of the UAE's ongoing regional competition with Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia has successfully hosted some of the most significant heavyweight boxing events in recent history, including the highly acclaimed bout between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, Abu Dhabi has garnered a distinct reputation as a global epicenter for combat sports.
It has proudly served as the exclusive home for the UFC in the Arab world for many years, has pioneered the launch of numerous local fight organisations, and remains a prominent hub for global jiu-jitsu competitions. In this sense, the UAE's dedication to combat sports not only aligns with its national interests but also positions it as a formidable player in the ever-evolving landscape of combat sports on the global stage.
The UAE's strategic utilisation of combat sports from jiu-jitsu to mixed martial arts underscores its multifaceted approach to diplomacy and soft power.
Beyond mere sport, jiu-jitsu has become a symbol of Emirati identity, with its integration into society and its recognition as the official national sport. This commitment, coupled with its appeal to Emirati royals, underscores the depth of the UAE's investment in this discipline and exemplifies how a nation can skillfully wield the power of sports to shape its image, expand its influence, and craft its identity on the world stage.