Owned by rival states Qatar and the UAE, the footballing heavyweights have also found themselves on opposing sides of European football’s politics
For regional rivals, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have a lot in common.
They are small, hydrocarbon-rich, conservative states in the Arabian Peninsula, with close allies in the West and much-maligned human rights records.
But the two have jostled and jousted in the global political arena, disagreeing on regional issues ranging from military conflicts to democratisation and press freedoms. The UAE even went as far as to join a four-year economic blockade of Qatar.
The similar-yet-different Gulf states do agree on one thing though: the power of sport to win friends and influence people.
In 2008, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a senior Abu Dhabi royal and member of the Emirati government, decided to buy the second biggest football team in Manchester, making it one of the richest clubs in the world overnight.
Three years later, the Qatari sovereign wealth fund – founded and run by the country’s ruling Al-Thani family – bought French football team Paris Saint-Germain.
Fast forward a decade and both states have poured over a billion dollars into their clubs, making them the most successful teams in England and France.
Now the regional rivalry between Doha and Abu Dhabi will play out directly on the football pitch, as PSG and Manchester City meet in the Uefa Champions League semi-final on Wednesday.
The two wealthy giants, who have conquered their domestic leagues and cups, will do battle to win the continent’s top footballing prize, which has thus far evaded both.
But the showpiece match comes amid a backdrop of scandal and acrimony, after Europe’s top clubs attempted to create a breakaway league last week, with the two teams finding themselves again on different sides.
Manchester City were among 12 teams that announced their intention to leave the Champions League in order to join a lucrative new rival competition known as the European Super League (ESL). PSG were one of the highest profile names to turn down the project.
The breakaway attempt collapsed less than 48 hours after it got going, as politicians, fans and football authorities blasted it as anti-competitive, anti-democratic and selfish.
The ESL’s collapse has added extra spice to what was already a football game of geopolitical dimensions, putting the Gulf states’ very different approaches to European football under the microscope.
PSG’s Qatari president cements power
As one of the 12 would-be breakaway teams, Manchester City drew the ire of Uefa, the administrative authority for football in Europe, which railed against the “traitors” seeking to overthrow the Champions League.
‘Qatar now has a whole image to reconstruct between now and the World Cup’
– Kevin Veyssiere, Football Club Geopolitics
Aleksander Ceferin, Uefa’s president, described plans for the super league as “disgraceful, self-serving proposals… fuelled by greed, above all else”. PSG, meanwhile, were praised for staying put.
It was the latest demonstration of the contrasting relationships the clubs have with Uefa.
Between PSG and Uefa, there is a great deal of harmony right now. The Paris club’s president, Qatari businessman Nasser al-Khelaifi , sits on Uefa’s executive committee, and is a close ally of Ceferin.
“Khelaifi has acquired an important weight within the organisation,” Kevin Veyssiere, the Paris-based founder of Football Club Geopolitics, told Middle East Eye.
“He does not want to lose all his advantages when PSG have often been the target of Uefa, especially in the past with Financial Fair Play (FFP).”
The club has drawn the attention of Uefa’s financial regulations since Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund, took over ten years ago.
But the governing body’s approach to PSG appears to have softened in recent years, no doubt helped by Khelaifi’s connections.
The 47-year-old is the chairman of BeIN Media Group, the Doha-based network that has committed large sums of money to secure television rights from Uefa to exclusively air the Champions League across the Middle East.
“If Uefa emerges from this crisis, Khelaifi will be able to recover more broadcasting rights for BeIN,” Veyssiere said.
He cemented his place in the corridors of power yet further this week, after being elected as the chairman of the European Club Association, the only Uefa-recognised body representing clubs in Europe.
The opportunity arose after Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of Italian club Juventus, was forced to resign from the body for his role in the breakaway plot. Ceferin, who is the godfather to Agnelli’s daughter, branded him a “snake”.
“Football needs good people in senior roles and Nasser is someone who has shown he is capable of looking after the interests of more clubs than just his own,” Ceferin said last week, of Khelaifi. “He is a man I can trust.”
The Qatari was last year named the most influential person in football, and that position looks only set to strengthen thanks to the events of the past week.
Abu Dhabi ‘radicalised’ fanbase to be anti-Uefa
Manchester City’s relationship has been far more dischordant. Last year, the club was handed a $36m fine and a two-year ban from European club competitions, over “serious breaches” of FFP regulations.
‘If you look at UAE foreign policy, it’s much more ruthless and Trumpian. Qatar is more diplomatic’
– James Montague, author
The probe was sparked after leaked documents suggested that City’s owner Sheikh Mansour was mostly funding the club’s $85m annual sponsorship by Etihad in 2015-16 season.
The ban was ultimately dropped and the fine reduced after a lengthy legal battle.
“Man City have been extremely aggressive with Uefa, and inculcated a feeling among its fanbase that Uefa is out to destroy them,” said James Montague, author of The Billionaire Club, which examines football club ownership in the era of the super-rich.
“It’s mostly conspiracy, but City’s owners have successfully radicalised their fanbase to be anti-Uefa.”
The northern England club have often framed themselves as outsiders from the traditional giants of European football, such as Real Madrid and neighbouring Manchester United. They believe they have been unfairly targeted by the powers that be since the Emirati takeover in 2008.
“This perception of Manchester City being outsiders is pure PR narrative to allow them to attack Uefa and FFP,” Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf-focused human rights researcher, tells Middle East Eye.
For McGeehan, it was no surprise that the English club’s Abu Dhabi owners were among those who went behind Uefa’s back to set up a rival league. “If there’s power to be gained in an anti-democratic exclusionary new project, they’ll be the first to sign up,” he said.
Qatar and UAE’s foreign policies bear similarities with its dealings as football club owners, according to Montague.
“If you look at UAE foreign policy, it’s much more ruthless and Trumpian,” he claimed. “Qatar is more diplomatic. It doesn’t quite have the same military or geo-political backing.”
“Rather than going all guns blazing, they have their feet under the table, and if they can’t get what they want, they’ve taken the diplomatic course.”
Doha seeks to salvage reputation
As with Uefa, global governing body Fifa also denounced the breakaway attempt. There were suggestions that it might even ban players from international football as a consequence of their involvement in the project.
With the Fifa World Cup in Qatar next year, Doha would have been ill-advised to join a plot that could have severely weakened a tournament it has spent over 10 years planning and preparing for.
The debacle comes just weeks after Qatar had been on the front and back pages for all the wrong reasons.
During World Cup qualification matches last month, several national teams, including Norway, Germany and the Netherlands, wore T-shirts in protest at human rights abuses being committed in the Gulf state.
It followed a Guardian report in February, which said that over 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup a decade ago.
“Qatar now has a whole image to reconstruct between now and the World Cup,” Veyssiere said. “The Guardian’s revelations… have done the emirate great harm.”
“[It] has every interest in building an image of defender of football fans, to try to sweep aside criticism around sportswashing.”
With PSG effectively owned by the Qatari state, joining a breakaway league accused of money-grabbing elitism would have been an act of self-harm, particularly following global protests.
‘Qatar isn’t interested in the wellbeing of small clubs. We should take that with a pinch of salt’
– Nicholas McGeehan
“The last few weeks were about how Qatar is everything wrong with modern football,” McGeehan said. “Did they want to then leap head first into something cementing their reputation as that, or step back and let some others take the flack for a while?”
“There would be no drawback if they came back later, had it been a success,” he added.
A PSG source told The Athletic that European competitions should not be restricted to the richest clubs, and that smaller teams deserved their shot.
“Qatar isn’t interested in the wellbeing of small clubs. We should take that with a pinch of salt,” McGeehan said. “But they’re certainly interested in being seen as the saviour of supporters of small clubs.”
Of the four semi-finalists remaining in this year’s Champions League, only PSG refused to join the breakaway, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid all on board.
Montague believes that the French club’s decision won’t move the needle much for fans who denounce them as a super-rich club propped up by petrodollars.
“But it gives the Qataris a rare PR victory,” he said. “They’ll be seen as the best of a bad bunch.”
Sheikh Mansour’s gamble fails
Unlike fellow English clubs Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, Manchester City’s owners are not in the sport for money.
Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the UAE and the half-brother of the country’s president, is widely thought to be a football owner for the reputational benefit of the Gulf state.
‘Even though you’d expect City would have loved the opportunity to stick the boot into Uefa, they were one of the last to sign up and were the first to pull out’
– James Montague
The Emiratis have long faced criticism for their foreign policy and internal human rights record, and sport has provided an opportunity to change the conversation.
City’s owners are adored by their fans for transforming the club from – at best – a mid-table Premier League team to a European giant. But they’ve broadened their influence to the wider Manchester community too, investing hundreds of millions of pounds into regenerating the east of the city.
“The redevelopment was part political and part commercial; a great way to buy influence and curry political favour. It made a lot of sense,” McGeehan said.
Given how hard the owners had worked to build up this political capital, it begs the question: why would they allow that to fall away, literally, overnight?
Unlike other owners and presidents chomping at the bit to join a big money league which could see their club’s assets double or triple, Sheikh Mansour had more to lose than gain.
“To their credit they were last to sign on,” said Montague. “Even though you’d expect City would have loved the opportunity to stick the boot into Uefa, they were one of the last to sign up and were the first to pull out.”
Reports suggested that City’s hierarchy had reservations about breaking away, but didn’t want to lose out if the others went ahead. They may also have felt uneasy being left behind with PSG and Bayern Munich, the two clubs either wholly or partly funded by their regional rival Qatar.
From the onset of announcing their involvement in the new competition, City faced an uphill struggle.
In the first signs that their political influence was under threat, the UK’s special envoy to the Gulf, Lord Udny-Lister, told the UAE government that City’s participation in the ESL would damage the country’s strong relationship with Britain.
‘It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed, it is not a sport when it doesn’t matter whether you lose’
– Pep Guardiola, Manchester City manager
Then came protests outside their Etihad Stadium, from fans that had stuck by the hierarchy through thick and thin. The final nail in the coffin was from City’s own manager, Pep Guardiola, vocalising his disdain for the project.
“It is not a sport where the relation between the effort and the reward does not exist,” he said of a competition without relegation. “It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed, it is not a sport when it doesn’t matter whether you lose.”
Hours after Guardiola’s comments, and less than two days on from announcing their involvement, City became the first club to officially declare their intention to withdraw from the ESL.
In an apology to fans, the club’s CEO Ferran Soriano said that “the board deeply regrets taking a decision that lost sight of the historic values of the club”.
While their footballing and political rivals in PSG cemented their power at Europe’s top table, City were left to lick their wounds after a major strategic error.
Gulf ownership hangs in balance
Though the breakaway plans were scuppered, the conversation has yet to move on.
Aside from talk of sanctions and punishment, a wider discussion has begun about the future of the game, and in particular, around ownership.
“There’s never been a better time for change,” says Montague. “There needs to be significant reform putting supporters in power and a competitive rebalance. We need billionaires not to be in football.”
The writer and journalist believes that governments, like that of the UAE and Qatar, should be banned from owning clubs, as it “distorts competition in a way that authorities can’t control”.
Alternative ownership models have been touted in recent days, in particular the 50+1 rule which exists in German football. It prescribes that fans must hold the majority of voting rights at a club, with private investors holding no more than a 49 percent stake.
Last week, the British government announced a fan-led review into English football, with ownership, finances and supporter involvement in the game to be discussed. Such conversations and potential reforms could force a rethink for current and prospective owners.
“Both City and PSG are political projects. They could exit, they won’t hold on for dear life,” Montague suggested.
“After the World Cup has been a success, how much do Qatar still want to be involved in the football business? At some point that will be a question Manchester City and the Al Nahyan family will ask: have we got everything we needed?”
The fallout from the ESL could spell trouble for Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia too, whose high-profile failed attempt to buy Newcastle United last year sparked a debate about countries attempting to “sportswash” their reputations.
With a broad coalition building over the past week, and strong rhetoric against billionaire and state-funded owners, another Saudi buyout attempt would likely incur even greater wrath.
“The British establishment will be well and truly tested on whether they can withstand the backlash if and when the Saudis come again,” Montague said.
For now, the status quo remains, as two of football’s richest “new money” clubs face off in the Champions League semi final.
But while Qatar and the UAE have used football ownership as a soft power tool with relative ease over the past decade, the fallout from a scandalous 48 hours could point to troubled waters ahead.
Illustration: Paris Saint Germain’s president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour took different approaches to the European Super League (MEE/Mohamad Elaasar)