By James M. Dorsey
The bitter Gulf rift between Qatar and its Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led detractors could spill on to the pitches of English soccer.
A flurry of reports suggest that the Gulf rivals are seeking to buy big name English clubs.
Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahayan, a member of the emirate’s ruling family, said this week that he had agreed terms with Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley to buy the Premier League club.
Meanwhile, Qatar reportedly was in talks to purchase Leeds United while Saudi Arabia has been rumoured to be circling Manchester United.
Stepped-up Gulf interest could take the region’s rivalry from the European level, where the UAE’s acquisition more than a decade ago of Manchester City and Qatar’s buying of Paris Saint-Germain set examples, into a national competition.
While both acquisitions have on balance contributed to the UAE and Qatar’s soft power despite hiccups, Manchester City’s owner, City Football Group, has created a template for commercial exploitation of what are some of the Gulf states’ most valuable brands by acquiring stakes in clubs in the United States, Australia, Japan, Spain, Uruguay and China.
The rush to buy British clubs is at least in part the latest round in the Gulf dispute that erupted two years ago with an alliance led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia declaring an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar.
Qatar has so far emerged on top with its unexpected winning of the Asian Cup early this year in of all places Abu Dhabi and its successful thwarting earlier this month of UAE-Saudi-backed efforts by world soccer body FIFA to force it to expand the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.
Qatar’s victories came on the back of a series of failed or at best partially successful Saudi and UAE efforts to enhance their influence in global soccer governance that would have enabled them to pressure the Gulf state.
The rush also suggests that the soft power gains of Gulf states seeking to project themselves in ways that contrast starkly with their image as autocratic and often brutal violators of human rights, including widely criticised migrant labour systems, outweigh the associated reputational risks.
That assessment is borne out by Manchester City fans’ enthusiastic embrace of the club’s Emirati owners and willingness to ignore the country’s human rights record.
Singing to the tune of African American 1920s classic Kum Ba Ya (Come by Here), fans chant “Sheikh Mansour m’lord, Sheikh Mansour, oh lord, Sheikh Mansour,” a reference to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, Manchester City’s owner, UAE minister of presidential affairs and half-brother of UAE president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Like Sheikh Mansour, Newcastle’s buyer Sheikh Khaled, whose business ties appear to be more with Dubai than Abu Dhabi, is likely to project his acquisition as personal even if the Emirates’ de factor ruler, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, keeps a tight lid on government as well as family affairs.
The Gulf states, responding differently to criticism, have nevertheless not had an easy ride in seeking to garner soft power and polish tarnished images.
In contrast to the UAE and Saudi Arabia who seldom respond to their critics, Qatar has reacted to an avalanche of criticism since its winning of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights by engaging with its detractors.
Although too little too late for its more strident critics, Qatar has made substantial changes to its kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers. To be fair, so has the UAE even if it did so less because of pressure by human rights and labour groups and more as part of an effort to project itself as a model, cutting edge 21st century state.
Nonetheless, both the UAE and Qatar could see their reputational gains undermined if legal proceedings involving their soccer business practices go against them.
Manchester City has reacted angrily to an investigation by European soccer body UEFA into allegations of financial fair play irregularities, which could lead to a Champions League ban.
The chairman and chief investigator of UEFA’s club financial control body investigatory chamber, Yves Leterme, has referred the allegations to the group’s adjudicatory chamber to issue a ruling.
Similarly, Paris Saint-Germain president, UEFA executive committee member and chairman of Qatar’s television network beIN Sports Nasser Al-Khelaifi was last week charged in France with corruption in connection with the bidding process for this year's world athletics championships in Qatar.
In an argument that could spread to Britain, Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league, denounced Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as “state-run clubs, one off petrol money, one off gas” that should be expelled from European competitions as threats to the sport.
Echoing Manchester City fans’ rejection of criticism of the UAE as “racist,” the club’s chairman, Khaldoon al Mubarak, dismissed Mr. Tebas’ assertions as ethnic slurs.
That’s a tactic that likely will work as long as fans such as Howard Hockin concede that they may be “hypocrites" who “don't care about human rights in the Middle East.”
A Manchester City podcaster, Mr. Hockin adds: "Abu Dhabi is an up-and-coming country, and it wanted to boost its profile. It's a PR thing, and we're fine with that… I should care but I don't. I should care about where my shoes come from – if they've been made by slave labour – but I don't. I don't look to football for my moral code. I don't think I've sold my soul to support Man City."
The question is whether Mr. Hockin would stick to his position if the business practices of his club’s owner or the politics of the UAE become a liability rather than an asset. With Mr. Al-Khelaifi’s legal issues, the same question could confront Paris Saint-Germain fans.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.