Opinion |

The Gulf States Have a New Political Weapon: Soccer

Cash-rich gulf states with limited political leverage have turned to the soccer field with the goal of winning hearts and minds

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

It’s a safe bet it wasn’t the city’s famed Jewish quarter or association with 13th-century kabbalists that prompted the City Football Group’s purchase of small Spanish soccer club Girona FC last week.

CFG is better known as the Arab parent company of English Premiership side Manchester City, and the Abu Dhabi-based group now owns six soccer clubs worldwide.

But it is CFG’s transfer actions that have dominated sports pages in recent years – to the extent that rumors suggesting Manchester City may meet the 300 million euro ($353 million) buyout clause in Barcelona star Leo Messi’s contract sound entirely feasible. After all, this is the club that throws money around in a way that even Johnny Depp would consider spendthrift.

But City has a rival when it comes to playing by the checkbook: French club Paris Saint-Germain. Unsurprisingly, both clubs’ money comes from the same source: cash-rich Gulf states, investing some of their hundreds of billions of dollars of oil and natural gas revenues overseas.

PSG was bought in 2011 by Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, which is basically a Qatari government-owned family fund. PSG’s president is Nasser al-Khelaifi, a former Qatari tennis pro who critics claim has merely swapped one racket for another.

City, meanwhile, was bought in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi group headed by Sheikh Mansour. Mansour also just happens to be a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.

Both owners are determined to turn their clubs into soccer powerhouses, replacing the old elites. And PSG gave a perfect demonstration of the new world order with its purchase of the 25-year-old Brazilian forward Neymar for 222 million euros earlier this summer.

As businessmen with the wherewithal to invest in anything they choose, the big question is: Why are the Qataris and Emiratis pouring so much money into a pursuit that rarely ends in profit? After all, as the old adage goes, the only way to make a small fortune out of soccer is by starting with a large one.

There are three main reasons: First, global awareness. Soccer remains the world’s biggest sport, being broadcast across the globe (it’s no coincidence that since Neymar’s transfer to PSG, Israel has just started broadcasting the top French league). If you want to get into people’s homes with a successful brand, there’s no quicker way.

Second, the sheer scale of the investment has turned both clubs into major players – City made it into the top five of Deloitte’s Soccer Money League for the first time this year, with a turnover of £392.6 million, just above sixth-placed PSG (£389.6).

Leo Messi scoring for Barcelona against Manchester City in October 2016. City reportedly wants to buy the Argentine superstar to help it win the Champions League.Credit: John Sibley/Reuters

Third, and most importantly, it’s a classic case of using the assets at your disposal. The cost of bankrolling soccer sides may be prohibitive, but not if you’re rich as Croesus. The Qataris and Emiratis have money to burn (especially the Emiratis), unlike pretty much the rest of the world, excepting the odd oligarch and high-tech billionaire.

It’s the most unlevel playing field outside of the Himalayas. For example, a Kuwaiti fridge magnate (no pun intended), Fawaz al-Hasawi, bought two-time European Cup winner Nottingham Forest in 2012 with dreams of restoring it to former glories. He soon discovered, though, that fridge sales were no match for black gold when it comes to funding soccer clubs and bowed out this summer, the club still stuck in England’s second league.

It’s easy to forget that before Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City, it was a train wreck of a club, going through managers the way Trump gets through press secretaries. To paraphrase Abba Eban, City never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

It is a club with a long heritage, though, dating back to 1880. PSG, by contrast, was only formed in 1970, in a leafy southwest suburb of Paris. It had only enjoyed periodic success, though, and was living in southern rival Lyon’s shadow a decade ago: it’s only Khelaifi’s Qatari investment that has literally reversed its fortunes.

Current PSG manager Unai Emery says he wants his side to become “one of the best teams in the world” – which means winning the Champions League. Even though PSG is still not favorite to win it this season (Real Madrid remains the team to beat), you’d expect it to get there eventually.

And that’s especially important for Qatar right now, which is otherwise being battered from all sides: The economic and diplomatic stand-off with fellow Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt has effectively just driven it into the arms of Iran.

And the classic soft power move of hosting a major sporting event has blown up in the Qataris’ faces – twice.

After winning the rights to host the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, it emerged that the Qataris had allegedly offered a series of financial inducements to help the judges reach their decision, leaving the embittered Spanish bidding team to complain: “All they have is money.”

And now, fresh from a successful championship in rain-sodden London, athletes are voicing doubts about the wisdom of competing in Doha (the good news is that temperatures in September rarely exceed 42 degrees Celsius – or 108 degrees Fahrenheit).

But that’s nothing compared to the response since Qatar won the rights to stage the 2022 World Cup. Human rights groups have slammed working conditions there, describing them as modern slavery, while the International Trade Union Confederation believes some 4,000 laborers will have died by the time the stadia are completed in 2022.

There are far fewer complaints when you spend $262 million on the world’s most exciting young player. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of handing over about $400 million for an Airbus A380: the economics don’t necessarily add up, but as a statement of intent it’s one hell of a way to announce yourself to the world.

I was in southwest London recently and saw two A380s, one after the other, gradually but elegantly gaining altitude, transporting their 500-odd passengers eastward. Underneath the fuselage of these huge beasts were the words “ETIHAD” and “QATAR” – literally, something for everyone to look up to.

It’s also like naming a gleaming new English stadium the Emirates (Arsenal’s ground) or the Etihad (Manchester City’s). Tottenham Hotspur is set to sell off the naming rights to its new stadium this year, and we can assume El Al won’t be competing in any bidding war.

The one thing that should be curbing Emirati and Qatari excesses on the soccer field is the Financial Fair Play rule, which European governing body UEFA first introduced in 2010 to try and stop clubs buying their way to success. (Unlike the United States, with its salary cap and luxury tax rules, European soccer clubs have always been able to spend freely.) But after handing out some initial penalties to offenders (including PSG and City), FFP appears to have fallen by the wayside – or at least both clubs now seem able to skate around it with the ease of Katarina Witt.

Despite making PSG and Manchester City global brands, you won’t be surprised to learn that neither Qatar nor the UAE appear on this year’s Soft Power 30 – the annual list published by a British PR firm that reveals which countries used their “political values, culture and foreign policy to best use to influence the world stage.” (Perhaps more surprisingly, France topped this year’s poll.)

For now, the Qataris and Emiratis don’t have hard power and they don’t really have soft power; they have hard currency power. In the same way that PSG and Manchester City are collecting some of the planet’s most iconoclastic soccer stars, it’s a similar story in the art world, where Qatar is the world’s biggest collector – and it’s the same story in the world of stamps. Sure, as that Spanish bidding team complained, all they have is money. But money buys you a lot of things, including goodwill and the hearts and minds of young soccer fans, with their PSG replica jerseys and Fly Emirates branding.

Just as China sees soccer as a way of increasing its soft power by making its national side one of the world’s best by 2050, we shouldn’t bet against these two Gulf states using their buying power to eventually land in the Soft Power 30. After all, they have yet to see a league they didn’t want to top.

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