This past April 5, Ramzan Kadyrov, the longtime head of the Chechen Republic, arrived in Bahrain for an official state visit with the kingdom’s royal family. Flanked by a delegation from the Chechen government—intimidating henchmen with atrocious résumés of human rights abuses among them—Kadryov broke bread with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, along with his two sons from his second wife, Sheikh Nasser and Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa. The groups exchanged tactful banter and witticisms about their respective countries before turning to a more comfortable topic of conversation: mixed martial arts.
Kadyrov’s eyes sparkled with newfound interest when the subject of sports was broached. Sheikh Nasser is the commander of Bahrain’s Royal Guard and the President of the Bahrain Olympic Committee; his younger brother, Sheikh Khalid, is the president of the Bahrain Royal Equestrian and Endurance Federation and the founder of Bahrain’s first MMA promotion—the latter of which was of particular interest to the Chechen ruler, who also funded his own local promotion and fight club.
“In a few days, one of our Chechen fighters will compete in the UFC,” Kadyrov said through a translator while seated in the walled-off Al-Sakhir Palace, in the western desert region of Bahrain. The palace is over a century old and was built in Islamic fashion to include grand arches, a dome, and a protruding minaret lighthouse. Kadyrov, who stole glances at the grandiose structure throughout the meeting, was referring to Magomed Bibulatov, set to make his UFC debut against Jenel Lausa in Buffalo a few days later. (He won.) His words were directed at Sheikh Khalid, whom he knew had sponsored a handful of UFC fighters himself before starting his own fight promotion. “May God help him in his effort,” the prince responded, before inviting Kadyrov on a tour of the country’s prized athletic facilities.
Following a lunch banquet in Kadyrov’s honor, the delegations visited King Hamad’s stable of horses, which included an Akhal-Teke breed stallion gifted to the monarch by Russian President Vladimir Putin the previous year in Sochi. “The king loves this horse to death,” Prince Nasser explained. Kadyrov and the two princes posed with the magnificent steed at sunset before setting off for Sheikh Khaled’s MMA training facility.
Upon arriving at the KHK fight club Sheikh Khalid founded in 2015, Kadyrov gave an impassioned speech in front of a host of local fighters about the importance of combat sports in the North Caucasus. He then extended an open invitation for Bahrain-based fighters to train in Chechnya. “We must begin cooperating together for sports events and talent exchanges, particularly the evolved sports that we both enjoy,” Kadyrov explained to Prince Khaled. He then offered to host the prince’s fight team in Chechnya for training sessions and fight camps ahead of scheduled bouts, an offer reciprocated by the prince. And thus, an experimental MMA partnership became the defining moment of Kadyrov’s stay in Bahrain.
The state visit—among other things, an opportunity to strengthen ties between the Russian Federation and the Gulf States in the Middle East—had taken a peculiar turn. Rather than a traditional focus on bilateral relations, economic cooperation, and international development, the two regimes chose instead to bond over a shared interest in sports. And indeed, what could do more to bolster their growing political friendship? After all, each regime had something to gain.
Over the past three years, Chechnya’s strongman leader, Kadyrov, has gone to considerable lengths to cultivate MMA’s popularity within his republic, part of a project of forcefully eroding longstanding traditions and replacing them with a form of hyper-masculinity rooted in prize-fighting and a cultural identity centred around historic Caucasus experiences of Russian oppression.
Over 5,000 Chechens, including the children of high-ranking officials within his government, are currently enrolled in Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club. Popular fighters who prove their worth to the republic are given apartments and luxury cars, and become a part of the Chechen elite class formed by Kadyrov himself. Even the name Kadyrov bestowed on his sports arena emphasizes the gladiatorial imagery and warrior spirit that his regime cultivates across the Chechen Republic: He called it the Colosseum.
Thousands of Chechen men regularly fill the Colosseum’s seats, chanting loudly and waving Chechen flags emblazoned with a picture of Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmad Haji Kadyrov. Dancers dressed in traditional mountaineer attire perform the lezginkha while a musician strums the phandar, a three-string plucked instrument native to the region, singing choruses and waxing poetic on the great Chechen warriors of centuries past. All the while, Kadyrov sits on his throne-like dais, surrounded by henchmen and bought celebrities, marvelling at the displays of regulated violence in a world he created almost overnight.
Kadyrov’s apparent fascination with combat sports may appear cartoonish or unimportant considering his well-earned reputation as a vicious tyrant. (Consider the purge of LGBTQ people in Chechnya in April 2017, when several hundred Chechen men were rounded up due to suspicion about their sexual orientation, with many disappearing. When asked about the harrowing reports, Kadyrov responded through press secretary Alvi Karimov: “You can not detain or harass those who simply do not exist in the country. If Chechnya had such people, the police would not have any problems with them, because their relatives would send them to the place of no return.”) MMA, however, serves a wide variety of his purposes, enhancing his personal image as a benevolent, sports-friendly ruler and distracting from the reality of his rule.
Chechen success in various combat sports has helped the small republic distinguish itself on an international stage, allowing Kadyrov to, as authoritarians often do, conceal the ongoing troubles within his fiefdom behind pageantry and false notions of safety. Sports are not only a tool of his rule, though, but a direct extension of it: He has stationed allies and fellow clansmen in leadership positions within local sports governing bodies to maintain his iron-fisted control over athletes and their political potential. (These appointments include Abuzayed Vismuradov, Kadyrov’s chief of security and special forces commander, who also functions as the president and promoter of the Chechen leader’s MMA promotion.) Whether it is to divert attention from his oppressive governance or create superficial enhancements to the image of his republic, Kadyrov has clearly aligned his passion for sports with his political interests.
Given that Kadyrov’s model for Chechen sports diplomacy is relatively established, it should come as little surprise that the fearsome ruler found common ground with a Gulf state like Bahrain.
Approximately 1,800 miles south of Kadyrov’s Chechnya lies the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. Geographically positioned on the northeastern coast of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the country comprises over 30 islands and is home to 1.3 million people. Though the country has a Shia-majority population, it is ruled by the House of Khalifa, the Sunni Muslim royal family that has been in power since 1783.
In 2015, Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the fifth son of Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, financed the development of the Island nation’s first fully-functional MMA fight club and training facility (KHK MMA), and later founded Bahrain’s first MMA promotion, Brave Combat Federation (Brave FC). As the primary patron of the KHK fight club, Sheikh Khalid provided significant incentives for those who joined the team. KHK members were given access to elite resources at no cost, including medical coverage, as well as monthly stipends high enough to cover their living expenses.
Originally a military man (he continues to serve as a first lieutenant in Bahrain’s Armed Forces), Sheikh Khalid became fascinated with the martial arts, fostering their development in his country. Apart from being the deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth Sports, he has personally competed in a pair of amateur MMA fights and regularly trains at the KHK facility. While Sheikh Khalid has not been personally indicted in any wrongdoing, he is a member of a monarchy that continues to commit an abundance of human rights violations.
Structured as a modern Arab monarchy, Bahrain’s local political scene is dominated by the ruling Al Khalifa family. By 2010, well over half the cabinet positions within the administration were occupied by blood relatives of the incumbent King Hamad Al Khalifa. This inherent lack of political freedom and equality for the Shia population played a pivotal role in the 2011 Bahraini uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring wave of revolutionary protests across the Middle East and North Africa.
Thousands gathered in Manama, the country’s capital, to protest for increased rights and a democratic political system able to account for Bahrain’s seemingly invisible majority. This resulted in deadly clashes between government forces and protesters. With the help of Saudi Arabian troops, Bahrain was able to forcefully restore order and cement the monarchy before proceeding to crack down on all forms of dissent. Peaceful demonstrators were imprisoned, while others were tortured and exiled from their homeland. Accusations were levied against the royal family, some of whom were implicated in the torture of civilians. This included King Hamad’s son Sheikh Nasser Al Khalifa, the president of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee and one of the driving forces behind Bahrain’s multi-pronged approach to sports diplomacy.
Sheikh Nasser, 11th in the line of succession for the Bahraini throne, is the Commander of Bahrain’s Royal Guard. He juggles a variety of sports-related responsibilities, including the presidency of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. As an athlete himself, he won a silver medal in endurance racing at the Asian Games in Doha and later launched the Bahrain Cycling Team. With exceptional influence over Bahraini sports, Sheikh Nasser is attempting to establish his kingdom as a respectable competitor on the international stage by medaling at more prestigious tournaments like the Olympics. The focus on sports also affords Sheikh Nasser an opportunity to camouflage his alleged human rights abuses, as well as those of his government.
The annual Formula One race has become one of the Bahraini regime’s main instruments of deception, as it is regularly used to distract citizens and international media from ongoing persecution and despotism. In the name of protecting the country’s image as well as its financial interests, all forms of dissent are silenced ahead of the prestigious event. While the race stands fill up with Bahrain’s elite and trendiest socialites, the prisons fill with those who had the courage to demand individual rights and freedoms.
The same strategy was applied during the 2011 uprising. Sheikh Nasser reportedly used his powerful positions to weed out athletes who took part in the protests; around 120 athletes—27 of whom were on Bahrain’s national teams—were arrested, and some were said to have been tortured. At a time, when the support of public figures could have emboldened protesters, Sheikh Nasser ensured that local athletes would not do so.
Six months after Kadyrov and his entourage were welcomed to Bahrain, a delegation of fighters from KHK MMA visited Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, in last month. They trained at Kadyrov’s facility for the majority of October, which also coincided with Sheikh Nasser’s visit to Chechnya. The decision to correlate Sheikh Nasser’s visit with that of his MMA team emphasizes the integral role of sports diplomacy in the relationship between the repressive regime.
Sheikh Nasser and his MMA-loving brother Sheikh Khaled have continued to find new ways to politically profit from their sports ventures; establishing ties with Kadyrov is merely the latest example. However, the newfound relationship between Bahrain and Chechnya extends past a friendly sports exchange program or improved cooperation.
Vladimir Putin first attempted to establish ties and enhance economic relations with Bahrain at the turn of the millennium, sending letters via special representatives offering support and praise for their approach to dealing with conflict in the Middle East region. Relations were further solidified when Russia supported the Bahrain regime during the 2011 uprising. Eventually, King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa went to Russia on an official state visit. This resulted in Bahrain, historically an ally to Washington and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, becoming one of Russia’s primary partners among the Gulf States.
Apart from his role as the primary pacifier of the Chechen Republic, Kadyrov is also a Sunni Muslim representative of Putin’s government and a powerful political player. He is well-positioned to act as a conduit for an increasingly close relationship between the two nations. This is particularly beneficial to the Kremlin, which is able to enhance relations with Sunni Muslim rulers through Kadyrov. It is also an opportunity for Bahrain to improve bilateral ties with the entire Russian Federation through a religiously-similar mediator. Sports are a pivotal component of both Russian and Bahraini statecraft, and initiating programs like MMA talent exchanges will only help Bahrain improve the strength and stability of the ties between itself and Russia.
This, then, is one thing MMA can be: A normal sport like soccer or thoroughbred racing, an understated way for military dictators to strengthen ties, enhance bilateral relations, and cement their authority. While the ongoing sports diplomacy between Chechnya and Bahrain may appear and even be harmless on its own, it is, also part of an ongoing shift in the international political landscape—one that emphasizes the creative ways tyrannical despots choose to display their power.
Karim Zidan was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. He now works as an associate editor for BloodyElbow.com, with bylines at Deadspin, Sports on Earth, Bleacher Report, Vocativ, and OpenDemocracy. His work has also been featured on HBO’s Real Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ZidanSports.