Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, Manchester City always wins. At least this is what the sport would appear to have been for the past five years in the English Premier League (EPL), the highest level of the men’s football system in England. Manchester City Football Club won the EPL in 2018, 2019, 2021, and 2022—four times in the past five years. In the five years before that, it won the championship twice—the same number of times the club had won it in the previous 113 years. What exactly happened to Manchester City in the past decade to make the club so successful?
The answer to that question may have something to do with the club’s acquisition in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), a private equity company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and its subsequent multi-million dollar investment in the club.
But why would ADUG be interested in such an acquisition? According to Sulaiman Al-Fahim, an Emirati businessman who helped facilitate the deal, it was “to make Manchester City the biggest club in the Premier League.” In terms of winning league titles, that is exactly what happened.
A similar shock to the system occurred in France in 2011, when Paris Saint-Germain Football Club (PSG) was acquired by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI)—a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority. Since then, PSG has won the French first division eight times. They had won it twice in the club’s previous 40 years.
The purchase of PSG by QSI has come to be perceived by many as a bid by Qatar to boost its profile around the world and project a sport-loving, outward-looking image for the small, natural-gas-producing Gulf state. Like the World Cup, which Qatar will host in November, top-flight European football clubs are marketing platforms for their owners. In addition to such soft power, with millions of viewers from South America to East Asia, European football at the highest level is a multi-billion dollar industry with an ever-expanding market.
The strategy of acquiring European football clubs through state-affiliated investment companies to both increase one’s global soft power and reap financial rewards is not limited to the Gulf countries. Russian and Chinese investors who have also acquired such clubs over the past two decades are arguably acting on behalf of regimes animated by the same desires. Furthermore, for Gulf countries preparing for the post-oil world, strengthening business ties with the West through the acquisition of sports franchises would seem prudent and wise.
ADUG and QSI are not the only investors from the Gulf. In October 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquired England’s Newcastle United Football Club. In April 2022, Bahraini investors were linked to a $1.1 billion bid to acquire a football club in Italy: AC Milan.
And it’s not just through the acquisition of clubs that Gulf Arab countries take center stage in European football. It’s also through multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals with clubs that, for example, emblazon the name of this or that flag-bearing airline on their jerseys. Such is the case with Emirates, the airline that sponsors, among other clubs, Arsenal in England, AC Milan in Italy, and Real Madrid in Spain. Etihad Airways, the UAE’s other flag carrier, sponsors Manchester City, and Qatar Airways sponsors PSG.
In addition to success on the pitch, Gulf Arab acquisition of European football clubs has had a huge financial effect on the game. Though neither the first nor the only ones in Europe to “splash the cash” on player transfers, Emirati and Qatari investors have exacerbated the inflation of prices in the football market. Nowhere was this more evident than with PSG’s signing of Barcelona’s Brazilian forward Neymar for a record 222 million euros in August 2017. These kinds of investments, which tend to increase the price of doing business for everyone else, are one reason the Union of European Football Associations instituted Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations in 2011. Whether FFP has in fact had a restraining effect on Gulf investments is, however, questionable.
Today, Manchester City has the highest annual revenue of any European football club. PSG is not far behind, occupying the sixth position in Deloitte’s most recent Football Money League report. The legitimacy of this revenue, in terms of FFP rules, has come into question. Nonetheless, few will deny that over the past five years, the Manchester club has been at the forefront of demonstrating the possibilities of beautiful, winning football. Meanwhile, PSG’s forward line includes arguably the best player to have played the game, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, and the winner of the Best Young Player award at the most recent World Cup, France’s Kylian Mbappé.
In 2020, PSG reached the final of the UEFA Champions League—the pinnacle of the sport. In 2021, Manchester City accomplished the same feat. Though the two clubs and their owners have their share of critics, this kind of success brings with it tremendous popularity: the two teams’ players, coaches, and owners have become household names the world over. Perhaps that was the plan all along.
There is, however, at least one cautionary tale about investing in European football clubs. Before Gulf Arab investors, there were wealthy Russian investors. The most famous was Roman Abramovich, who acquired England’s Chelsea Football Club in 2003, a purchase that changed the course of English football by pumping money into a middling team and turning it into a champion overnight, which in a sense paved the way for ADUG to do the same with Manchester City. Yet less than a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the government of the United Kingdom sanctioned Abramovich for his ties to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and ultimately forced him to sell Chelsea.
Gulf Arab investors and their partners appear to have monitored this series of events closely, and with some trepidation. When pressure was building on Abramovich, Amanda Stavely, a prominent British business executive who sits on PIF’s board of directors and is very much involved in matters relating to the Saudi wealth fund’s newly acquired Newcastle team, expressed reservations about the Russian business mogul being forced to sell Chelsea. Tellingly, however, she hastened to allay possible concerns that Saudi Arabia would ever do anything to warrant the backlash Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had generated.
Thus far, Gulf Arab investment in European football clubs has proven its worth. The clubs in question have either won titles or come tantalizingly close, and have projected the names of their owners far and wide. Indeed, Abu Dhabi and Doha have made their European clubs the biggest in the world, and Riyadh might soon join them. Yet as recent political developments have demonstrated, and as Gulf Arab football owners have noticed, this does not mean that their investments are risk-proof.