James M. Dorsey

Middle East sports go global with politics in tow.

Middle East sports dogged by politics

A potential sale of storied soccer club Manchester United to a member of Qatar’s ruling family could take the Manchester derby to new heights.

The sale also enhances the likelihood of England’s Premier League, the world’s most-watched league, becoming a venue for Gulf state rivalries.

It is unclear whether Jassim bin Hamad Al Than’, chairman of Qatar Islamic Bank and son of a former prime minister, is personally interested in Manchester United or his US$9.15 bid for the club is part of a Qatari effort to expand its European franchise.

What is clear is that the sale would mean that the Gulf’s three primary players, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar would each own a Premier League club.

A senior UAE ruling family member bought Manchester City in 2008, while Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquired Newcastle United in 2021. Elsewhere in Europe, Qatar owns France’s Paris Saint-Germain.

Tensions between the three Gulf states tend to spill onto soccer pitches. The UAE waged a decade-long effort to deprive Qatar of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights that reached a crescendo during the 3.5-year-long Emirates-Saudi Arabia-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state.

The Gulf political sands have since shifted. Saudi Arabia quickly welcomed Qatar back into the fold when the boycott was lifted in early 2021. The UAE and Bahrain, which joined the boycott, took time to reestablish relations.

Long obsessed with the threat to Gulf monarchies posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed was determined to force Qatar to end its support for popular Arab revolts and political Islam. Qatar has loosened its ties to the Brotherhood and other groups since the boycott’s end.

In addition, mounting competition with Saudi Arabia and a souring of personal relations between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr. Bin Zayed have contributed to a warming of ties between the UAE and the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s recent spectacular soccer player buying spree is the latest expression of Mr. Bin Salman’s determination to secure the kingdom’s position as the Gulf’s top dog.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has used the spree to bolster its standing as the leader of the Muslim world and beacon of moderate, tolerant Islam, with Muslim players suggesting that religious affinity was one reason they wanted to transfer to the kingdom.

The acquisitions juxtapose the kingdom with Europe, whose culture wars fuel anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-black sentiment.

The impact of Gulf rivalries on the Premier League and European soccer may be subtle as long as the various states manage their differences well.

Moreover, fan attitudes will likely further shield the League from rivalries spilling publicly onto the soccer pitch.

Supporters of Gulf-owned clubs may, in the majority, not be concerned about their club owners’ tarnished human rights records and may want to avoid being drawn into regional rivalries.

Nevertheless, politics and sports, particularly soccer, are inseparable Siamese twins with domestic and geopolitical connotations, nowhere more so than in the Middle East.

In the United States, politics has dogged the proposed merger between golf’s PGA Tour, the longstanding organizer of the sport’s flagship events, and LIV Golf, its Saudi Public Investment Fund-backed US$405 million, 14-tournament league rival.

Like with the Newcastle acquisition, Saudi Arabia has tried to downplay the role of the Saudi state in the golf merger. In the US, senators investigating the merger are challenging the Saudi effort.

The Fund’s governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, initially refused to testify in court proceedings in California that were shut down with the merger announcement. More recently, Mr. Al-Rumayyan has sought to avoid appearing before the Senate investigation committee.

The chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Senator Richard Blumenthal, has warned Mr. Al-Rumayyan that the committee “will be forced to consider other legal methods to compel PIF’s compliance” if he fails to appear in Congress on September 13 or does not propose an alternative date.

The PIF asserts that Mr. Al-Rumayyan has sovereign immunity. In addition, the fund argued that as “a minister bound by the Kingdom’s laws regarding the confidentiality of certain information,” Mr. Al-Rumayyan would be “an inappropriate witness” for a public hearing on Saudi business investments and its efforts to leverage those for international influence.

Saudi Arabia fears that Mr. Al-Rumayyan could be questioned in Congress about his involvement in Mr. Bin Salman’s 2017 power grab in which a large number of prominent Saudi business people and ruling family members were detained at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and forced to hand over significant portions of their assets, including the transfer of companies to the investment fund.

Sky Prime Aviation Services, a Riyadh-based charter jet company, was among the assets transferred. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, reported that one of the company’s planes flew to Istanbul members of the squad that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

There is no suggestion that Mr. Al-Rumayyan had any knowledge or personal involvement in the matter.

“PIF cannot have it both ways: if it wants to engage with the United States commercially, it must be subject to United States law and oversight,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

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About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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