Manchester city abu dhabi, abu dhabi dubai, abu dhabi sheik
Chris Weeks/AP
Sulaiman Al-Fahim

UAE Sheiks Making Moves Into English Soccer

September 04, 2008 10:37 AM
by Denis Cummings
An Abu Dhabi investment group recently purchased English Premiership club Manchester City in an effort to compete with neighboring emirate Dubai, where Sheik Mohammed is renewing a bid for Liverpool.

‘We are going to be the biggest club in the world’

Abu Dhabi billionaire Sulaiman Al-Fahim, CEO of developer Hydra Properties, bought Manchester City Football Club from former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced to sell the team after Thailand froze his assets. The cost, £200 million ($360 million), is insignificant for al-Fahim, who is funded by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Little was known about the deal before it was completed on September 1, which was also soccer’s player transfer deadline. The new ownership immediately made several lavish bids for players and was able to sign Brazilian star Robinho from Real Madrid for a British record £32.5 million.

Abu Dhabi is the capital city and largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates, but it has been overshadowed by neighboring Dubai. Dubai has become world famous for extravagant projects including the world’s tallest building, a string of manmade islands shaped like countries, and Dubailand, a massive resort and theme park that includes Dubai Sports City, a complex featuring several modern sports stadiums.

Abu Dhabi has spent its enormous oil wealth on less flashy developments, like a Guggenheim Museum and Louvre art gallery. Al-Fahim, the “Arab Donald Trump,” intends “to create Abu Dhabi as the capital of sport and culture in the Middle East, to attract all the important events.” He will use Manchester City to promote his image and the image of Abu Dhabi.

“We are dealing with an economic superpower here and it is going to completely eclipse Dubai in the coming years,” Christopher Davidson, Middle East expert at Durham University, told the Daily Telegraph. “The Manchester City investment is sending money abroad, but its purpose is very much about putting Abu Dhabi on the map.”

It might not be long before Dubai ownership enters the Premiership. Days after the Manchester City deal, Dubai International Capital, an investment arm of Dubai leader Sheik Mohammed, renewed a bid for Liverpool Football Club after failing to buy the club last year.

Background: Foreign ownership in the Premier League

The Premier League was formed in 1992, when club owners decided to form a league separate from the lower British leagues so it could negotiate its own lucrative television contracts. It has since become the richest and most watched sports league in the world.

Before the formation of the Premier League, teams were almost exclusively owned by local businessmen. That has changed dramatically, and now more than half the teams in the league are owned by foreigners from Russia, the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Three teams are owned by Americans: Manchester United, Aston Villa and Liverpool. Manchester United fans bitterly protested the 2005 takeover by Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer, holding demonstrations outside the stadium and burning Glazer and his sons in effigy. Liverpool’s American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, have faced similar resistance since their takeover in 2006 and are now under pressure to sell to Dubai International Capital.

For some owners, Premier League teams are considered playthings and status symbols rather than successful business opportunities. Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 and spent hundreds of millions to sign some of the world’s greatest players. He loses a great deal of money on the team each year, but he has won two Premiership titles and become an internationally known figure.

The Abu Dhabi owners will take a similar approach at Manchester City; they outbid Chelsea for Robinho and have made clear that they will make several extravagant bids for players during the January transfer window, including a possible $240 million bid for Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo. “Ronaldo has said he wants to play for the biggest club in the world, so we will see in January if he is serious,” al-Fahim told Arabian Business. “We are going to be the biggest club in the world, bigger than both Real Madrid and Manchester United.”

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