Since the owners of the famous UK football club Manchester United announced their intention to sell it, speculation has been rife in the British media about who will be the successful bidder.
The UK sports and mainstream media are pointing to the Gulf countries as possible buyers, either through their sovereign wealth funds or companies linked to their rulers.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister told the UK satellite channel Sky News that he wanted to see Manchester United under Saudi ownership. With rumours about a possible Liverpool sale as well, Saudi Arabia would like to acquire both.
Saudi Arabia bought Newcastle United last year through its Public Investment Fund (PIF). The UK Premier League considered the PIF to be not controlled by the Saudi government, allowing the Newcastle deal.
Saudi Sports Minister Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal told Sky News that he wanted either or both [clubs] to fall under Saudi ownership.”
“If there are investors and the numbers add up and it makes good business sense,” the clubs could be bought by Saudi investors, he said. “The private sector could come in, or companies could come in, from the Kingdom… The Premier League is the best league in the world. Everyone is watching the Premier League… and there are diehard fans of these teams in the Kingdom. So, it would be a benefit for everyone.”
With a younger generation of Gulf rulers coming to power over the last two decades, a drive has begun to change Gulf societies. A main feature has been the diversification of Gulf economies away from a reliance on oil and gas revenues, and they have been competing to acquire tourism and sports interests.
The Gulf countries have either built venues to partner with big sports events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix or have revived niche sports. One of these is Jiu Jitsu, a form of mixed martial arts, which has been revived by the UAE that wants to see Abu Dhabi become a global hub for the sport.
The Gulf countries have also been shopping for major football clubs in Europe, especially in the English Premier League. A company linked to sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the UAE, bought Manchester City in 2008. Three years later, Qatar took full control of the French club Paris Saint Germain (PSG). The Saudis bought Newcastle United last year.
Some see these purchases as a profitable investment, and a Dubai-based financial adviser said that sports investment was yielding positive returns.
“Manchester City was bought for just over $200 million and is now worth more than $4 billon,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. Even allowing for the fact that sheikh Mansour’s company has spent about $2 billion on the club, it is still a profitable investment.
Much the same thing has been true of the Qatari investment in PSG. Qatar paid $130 million in 2011 to increase its stake in the French club to 70 per cent and agreed to spend another $140 million over five years. PSG is now valued in excess of $3 billion.
But a London-based Australian executive who has worked in the Gulf told the Weekly that it is not only business opportunities due to rising oil prices that has driven the Gulf countries to buy major European sports clubs.
“It is about the prestigious acquisitions of ‘trophy’ assets and competing to get your country’s name known when associated with such brands. Though there’s a love of sports among the young generations of Gulf rulers, they also have pride in buying such big names in football.”
The Saudis bought Newcastle for less than $400 million and are seeking to grow the club to be worth $4 billion. Their main interest in Manchester United and probably Liverpool is for these clubs to turn into “promising business opportunities,” the financial adviser said.
The US investors who currently own Manchester United have put a $7 billion price-tag on the sale, though the market value is between $3.5 and $4 billion. The buyer will need to see a positive return from membership fees, ticket sales, and broadcast rights.
Whether motivated by a desire for a profitable investment or just the pursuit of prestige, the competition between the Gulf states in acquiring European football teams also serves another purpose by making up for the lack of international presence of the local footballing scene.
Whether such acquisitions can help grassroot sports in the Gulf nations develop is questionable, even as they become major pieces in the search for international visibility and make further acquisitions almost inevitable.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.