By Richard Berry
When Manchester City beat Queens Park Rangers to win the Premier League on the last day of the 2011/12 season, it was 44 years to the day since the club had last won the English league championship. The circumstances of that victory in 1968 were eerily similar, with City again clinching the title ahead of local rivals Manchester United in their final game, this time with a nervy 4-3 victory over Newcastle. But the club itself could not have been more different.
In 1968 the club was owned by a group of local businessmen, and its chairman was Albert Alexander Jr, whose family had been involved with the club since the turn of the 20th century. City faded in the subsequent decades. They struggled in particular during the 1980s and 1990s, much of which the club spent outside the top flight.
In 2012, however, City were widely considered the richest club in world football. Since 2008 they had been owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, senior member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Able to draw on Mansour's wealth, the club routinely competes for major honours, possesses a squad filled with world class players, and is investing vast amounts in the development of its stadium and surrounding complex.
Mansour's acquisition of the club is just one of several major investments in English football from the oil-rich Gulf region of the Middle East. Arsenal has a long-standing sponsorship arrangement with the state-owned Dubai airline Emirates, after which their stadium is named. Leeds United was bought last year by a Dubai-based bank, which is in turned owned by a Bahraini bank. Sheffield United is co-owned by Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a member of the Saudi Arabian ruling family. Nottingham Forest was bought last year by the wealthy Al-Hasawi family of Kuwait, who are linked to the Kuwaiti ruling family.
The same has happened to a lesser extent in other countries. Paris Saint-Germain is owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar. Barcelona has a commercial partnership with the same entity and are sponsored by the state-owned Qatar Airways. As well as Arsenal, Emirates sponsors Real Madrid, AC Milan, Hamburg, Paris Saint-Germain and Olympiacos.
For fans of these clubs, it is all too easy to welcome the money and the prospect of success it brings. But to do so is to become complicit in the repression of millions of people in the Gulf. The Arab Spring has brought attention to Egypt, Libya and Syria in particular since 2011, with their former and current rulers widely condemned. In contrast, repression in the Gulf nations has gone largely unnoticed by the global media. Recently I interviewed Nicholas McGeehan, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, an NGO active in region. He told me that, since the Arab Spring took hold in 2011:
We've seen the true repressive character of the Gulf states become quite brutally manifest. Most obviously in Bahrain, where there has been street protests, but in countries like the UAE there has been domestic unrest which has been cracked down very heavily… You have effectively six Gulf monarchies desperate to hold on to power who refuse to allow their citizens the right to express their views, who refuse to be challenged, and who use incredibly brutal methods to crack down on opponents or perceived opponents. Typically torture, which has been documented in most of the Gulf states.
What is striking about the reaction of many football fans is the way they have heaped adulation on their owners with little regard for their human rights record. For instance, a group of Manchester City supports has erected a banner at the club's stadium, displaying the words "Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour". When the Guardian journalist David Conn recently wrote an article juxtaposing repression in Abu Dhabi with the use of City to improve the regime's brand, many fans reacted indignantly. The article was posted on a popular fans' forum, and of the comments in response, 52% were critical of Conn; just under ten per cent supported his position, with the remainder neutral.
Among the more extreme statements from City fans attacking Conn included: "They're the best owners in the world, so I don't give a toss if they're killing a thousand dissenters a day in their own country," "I think a progressive state by Middle Eastern standards like Abu Dhabi taking a hardline approach to dickheads preaching regressive Islam should be applauded," and "I am convinced that some of these journalists think they are intellectuals by turning out this crap all the time….they are all self-interested pillocks making shite up and spewing it out as they please".
Arguably, Mansour has sought to encourage this kind of sentiment. As well as his huge investment in the squad, Mansour has embraced the heritage of the club, for instance honouring former players such as the late Bert Trautmann. A particularly popular move has been to keep ticket prices low: despite their recent success, City offer the lowest-priced season ticket of any Premier League club. Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch argues that the purchase of the club is part of a deliberately strategy to bolster the global image of the Abu Dhabi regime:
You don't make money from buying football clubs. What they allow you to do is to project your image, your brand all over the UK cultural landscape… What this allows the [Abu Dhabi regime] to do is project this image of themselves which is entirely inconsistent with the reality of the facts on the ground over there. They project themselves as progressive, modern businessmen… but it's also a serial violator of human rights and this branding exercise is an attempt to offset the potential reputational damage done by their actions."
Football is not alone in forming strong links with these regimes. The UK government has strongly encouraged trade with the Gulf; David Cameron recently visited the region to promote British business there. But football does have moral responsibilities in needs to uphold. One way the football authorities can do this is by strengthening their 'fit and proper person test': this is a set of rules barring those convicted of financial crimes from buying football clubs, but places no restrictions on human rights abusers. Football fans must also let their collective voices be heard on this issue: while boycotts are extremely unlikely, supporters' organisations need to make public their disapproval of any repression committed by their owners and the regimes they are linked with.
Richard Berry is managing editor of Democratic Audit. He is jointly responsible for day-to-day management of the site and leads on major projects for the organisation. In previous roles Richard has worked for the London Assembly, the consultancy JMC Partners and Ann Coffey MP. Richard is also the founder of the public policy blog Modest Proposals and the author of Independent: the rise of the non-aligned politician (Imprint Academic, 2008). He tweets at @richard3berry.
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