The Men Behind Man City: a documentary not coming soon to a cinema near you
I have had an idea for the opening scene of Amazon Prime’s in-production fly-on-the-wall documentary about Manchester City’s 2017/2018 season. It begins with a sombre warning from a US TV news reporter from 2009: “A reminder that what you are about to see is extremely violent and disturbing.” Then an ominous pause followed by some menacing music as they introduce the grainy footage of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed Al Nahyan using a cattle prod on a former business partner who is being held down by police officer somewhere in the desert outside Abu Dhabi. The menacing music gives way to the sound of Manchester City supporters hailing their owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — Sheikh Issa’s brother — to the tune of kumbaya. “Sheikh Mansour m’lord, Sheikh Mansour,” roars the crowd as we see Issa beating the man with a board with a nail protruding from it, pouring salt into his wounds, electrocuting him, and setting him on fire. At this stage the producers must resist the urge to lighten the mood by showing some exquisite interplay between Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. Instead the camera follows Sheikh Issa driving repeatedly over his victim in a Mercedes SUV, as City supporters continue to acclaim the royal family of Abu Dhabi, whose money has financed their rise to the top tier of European football.
The scene is now set for an incendiary analysis of modern football’s most sinister benefactors.
Now having hooked you into this yarn, I’m sorry to have to report that the producers and I have creative differences over this documentary. According to Manchester City’s website, “this ground-breaking, multi-episode series will follow the Club throughout the current campaign, offering fans an insight into the day-to-day workings of the club,” and there’s stuff about “taking fans into the inner sanctum of the Club’s world-leading training facilities,” as well as “interviews with the manager and access to executive meetings.” So, unfortunately there will be no Al Nahyan torture video intro and no subsequent examination of how unscrupulous actors feed off and manipulate supporters’ passionate love of their clubs. This will be a warm, fuzzy, we’re-just-a-bunch-of-dedicated-guys-pulling-together type of affair.
European football’s other emerging superpower is Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, but whereas that project is held up as a rather gauche attempt to buy instant success and divert attention from their appalling treatment of migrant workers as they prepare for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Abu Dhabi’s Manchester City is increasingly held up as an example of How To Run A Modern Football Club. A long-read in the Financial Times on December 9, which referred to the Manchester City project and its global spin-off franchises in New York and Melbourne as the ‘Disneyification’ of football, is the latest example of a very well-sourced article reassuring us that the men behind Manchester City are focused on building a self-sustaining football empire. Well it was the latest example of such an article. Less than a week later, on December 15, The Guardian’s long-read was titled “Manchester City’s plans for global domination,” and once more the project was viewed in soft focus. David Conn and James Montague have chronicled football’s portfolio of Faustian pacts in impressive and entertaining detail and both have been rigorous in their scrutiny of Abu Dhabi’s actions and motives, but the sunny assessments of the Manchester City project far outnumber the critical ones.
In 2012, when Manchester City were just beginning to hit their stride in England, a senior investigative journalist at a large British broadcasting company told me that their colleagues in sport would be very displeased if negative news coverage of the Abu Dhabi government’s links to Manchester City led to them being denied access to the club and its players. Now that Manchester City look to be on the brink of an era of domination, at least in England, it’s perhaps time to take another look at who is really behind this project and why.
The initial face of the Abu Dhabi takeover in September 2008 was that of Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim. “I find myself as chairman, as owner, even our official press release said I was the owner. It was nice, I like it. I like it when they put my picture in the news,” he told James Montague, a few weeks after the deal was struck. The men who were really behind the deal did not like seeing Al Fahim’s picture in the news and he was quietly moved aside. Manchester City is nominally owned by Sheikh Mansour Al Nahyan, who is so enthused by his investment of nearly £1 billion that he has attended one match in nine years. “Mansour did not like the fuss it caused”, was the rather implausible explanation that a City source recently proffered to Giles Tremlett to explain the Sheikh’s aversion to attending games. A simpler explanation might be that Sheikh Mansour has nothing to do with Manchester City and that it’s not his money that is responsible for its remarkable transformation.
Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest and most powerful of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The man who controls Abu Dhabi and dictates policy is Sheikh Mansour’s brother, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. And the men who run Manchester City are Mohamed bin Zayed’s key lieutenants, not Mansour’s. Chief among them is Khaldoon Al Mubarak, club chairman since 2008, and the Crown Prince’s right-hand man. Mubarak is also CEO of Mohamed bin Zayed’s mega-corporation Mubadala, which has assets of £50 billion, and invests vast sums of money around the world in sectors as diverse as real estate, pharmaceuticals, and aeronautics. Mohamed bin Zayed is also the driving force behind the UAE’s efforts to develop a domestic defence industry, which means he can now manufacture weapons and sell them to his own increasingly active army. All powerful and unencumbered by the need to justify his war-mongering in places like Yemen, which he has helped to destroy, Mohamed bin Zayed is fast becoming a one-man military-industrial complex.
Another key member of the team is the Australian Simon Pearce, also a Manchester City director, and Abu Dhabi’s head of strategic communications. Pearce made his name at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, whose work with clients such as Nicolai Ceaucescu, Blackwater and Union Carbide led to the famous quote “when evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed-dial.” Abu Dhabi made a direct hire and Pearce is charged with protecting and promoting Abu Dhabi’s reputation. In examining their motives for buying Manchester City it helps if you think of Abu Dhabi as a corporation as well as a city-state, and Pearce is as comfortable offering advice on business deals as he is advising on matters of domestic and foreign policy.
This isn’t speculation on my part, you can read some of his emails online at otaiba-inbox.com. The most interesting ones about football are the ones he sends to Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States.
“He’s slick, he’s savvy, and he throws one hell of a party” ran the byline of the Huffington post’s 2015 profile of Otaiba, or ‘Brotaiba’ as he was known in the corridors of the US State Department. Unfortunately for Otaiba, this savviness did not extend to using a properly encrypted email account, and the ambassador’s Hotmail account, email@example.com (yes, seriously), was hacked and the emails dumped online. The Intercept have revealed the scandalous contents of Otaiba’s emails in numerous fascinating articles, but almost no attention has been paid to the emails pertaining to Abu Dhabi’s American soccer franchise, New York City FC. In an email sent on May 5, 2013, Simon Pearce briefs Otaiba, whom he calls “Chief”, on the public relations implications of concluding the franchise deal, which had recently come to light in the media.
“Now that the deal is in public play, delaying a decision further on the franchise and stadium creates additional risk to the project as well as to ownership group reputation,” writes Pearce. In a list of “downside considerations” Pearce states that “AD/UAE vulnerabilities” will be put in play and lists them as “gay, wealth, women, Israel.” Another downside he lists is the fact that “ownership group already defined by media, politicians, community as Abu Dhabi not CFG [City Football Group].”
Pearce describes the option of walking away from the deal as a “major setback for CFG business plans” and a “missed opportunity for big NY play.” Obviously, Pearce and co felt that the benefits of pursuing the deal outweighed the reputational risk, and two days later, on May 7, 2013, New York City Football Club was registered as a corporate entity in New York state, becoming the newest franchise in Major League Soccer.
When you look at how Abu Dhabi has been greeted in Manchester, it’s easy to see why they felt this was a risk worth taking.
Abu Dhabi made its ‘big play’ in Manchester in 2013 when it entered into a £1 billion property deal with Manchester City Council. A report which set out “the detailed commercial arrangements” for the joint venture was kept secret because it “involved consideration of exempt information relating to the financial or business affairs of particular persons.” The Guardian attempted to obtain the report through a freedom of information request, but the council denied the request, citing “the risk of prejudice to the commercial interests.” It’s not clear if they meant the commercial interests of the council or the commercial interests of Abu Dhabi, which in the case of this deal are managed by a company registered off-shore in the tax haven of Jersey.
Having been made aware of the council’s close business links to the Abu Dhabi government, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote to the two most senior figures in the council, Sir Richard Leese and Sir Howard Bernstein, asking that they “take some simple and principled steps that would support victims of serious human rights violations and ensure Manchester’s commercial relationships with senior figures in the UAE government do not besmirch the city’s reputation.” The March 2016 letter made reference to the council’s celebration of the city’s radical past. (In 1862 Lancashire mill workers — at great personal cost — refused to touch any raw cotton picked by American slaves. Abraham Lincoln wrote to them, praising their heroism, which, he said “has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.” Mohamed bin Zayed would have had them maced and thrown them in jail. He’d have come up with something more devious for Emmeline Pankhurst, whose suffragette movement began at her Manchester home in Nelson Street.)
Leese responded, describing the Abu Dhabi government as “exemplary business partners” (which suggests he hasn’t seen the video of Sheikh Issa Al Nahyan using a cattle prod on his former business partner), and saying that the “alleged” abuses detailed in the letter were beyond the council’s sphere of influence. If that was debatable then, it’s laughably untrue now — last month Sir Howard Bernstein took up a job with the City Football Group.
Pearce’s emails provide a fascinating insight into Abu Dhabi’s motivations for buying football clubs. There is certainly a public relations angle to these initiatives, but it’s a lot more subtle than mere reputation laundering, a criticism I have levelled in the past. Pearce doesn’t want the media and the general public to associate New York City FC with the Abu Dhabi government, but rather with the City Football Group, because the “vulnerabilities” of the Abu Dhabi government could jeopardize the business interests of Abu Dhabi Inc. By “vulnerabilities”, Pearce means government policies that jar with the progressive image City Football Group needs to project in order to prosper. In Pearce’s view the main issues are the UAE’s criminalization of homosexuality, its poor record on women’s rights, and its failure to recognize the state of Israel.
It’s highly doubtful that club ownership is primarily about generating income either, at least not directly. As stand-along businesses, the football clubs do not and will not generate the type of profits that interest these types of investors. Manchester City make much of the fact that the club has turned a net profit of £32.2 million in the last three years, but the net losses of the previous five seasons totaled £491.3 million — £121.3 million in 2009/10, £197.5 million in 2010/11, £97.9 million in 2011/12, £51.6 million in 2012/13, £23 million in 2013/14. When you throw in the cost of buying the club, estimated at £210 million, the losses from the 2008/2009 season, which the club do not appear to have published, and the £161 million net spend on players since it signed off its latest accounts, the net loss is probably close to £850 million. If the idea is to generate alternative revenue streams for the post-oil economy, they’re not doing a very good job of it.
What’s clear is that Manchester City FC and New York City FC enable Abu Dhabi to gain footholds in centres of power and influence, and provide a platform for the pursuit of further business opportunities which themselves consolidate and strengthen Abu Dhabi’s political influence. What’s not clear is whether that’s the primary purpose of their football interests, but Pearce’s emails point in that direction. Placing an abusive dictatorship under such bright spotlights is a high-risk strategy, as Pearce makes very clear, but he appears supremely confident of his ability to manage the reputational risks. He does this in three ways: firstly, by presenting the clubs’ owner as a wealthy benevolent businessman (Mansour), rather than an all-powerful statesman (MBZ); secondly by flooding the media with puff-pieces about how progressive the UAE is; and thirdly by attacking the credibility or the motives of groups and individuals who criticise the UAE’s abuses. Unfortunately, he’s very good at his job.
Speaking about Manchester City on the excellent Second Captain’s podcast, Ken Early recently referred to Manchester City as a “host organism”. Early didn’t go so far as to compare Abu Dhabi’s rulers to a malicious virus, but when you look at how the men behind Manchester City exert their influence abroad, “host organism” is the perfect metaphor.
In 2012, Simon Pearce wrote briefing notes for Mohamed bin Zayed in which he urged David Cameron’s government to take steps to end what Pearce described as Islamist infiltration of BBC Arabic — Pearce advised MBZ that he should demand the prime minister’s “help … with the BBC in particular.” In return for silencing the British press and other favours, Pearce’s briefing notes indicate that Cameron was to be offered lucrative arms and oil deals for British business which would have generated billions of pounds for BAE Systems and allowed BP to bid to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf. Abu Dhabi also invests millions in Washington DC, much of it on the type of think-tanks that seem to think mostly about money. After successfully encouraging the neo-conservative analyst Michael Rubin to write an article questioning the credibility of Human Rights Watch research on torture in the UAE, Pearce could scarcely disguise his glee in the email he sent to Yousef Al-Otaiba. “Happy new year!!” it began. “The [Rubin] article demonstrates that we have now empowered the right to make legitimate demands of the left wing Human Rights lobby.” (In the interests of transparency, I should point out that I researched and wrote the Human Rights Watch press release on torture that Rubin criticised.) In France, the UAE was keen to empower the far-right, as documented by French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, whose book “Nos Très Chers Émirs” contained the revelation, repeated elsewhere, that the UAE was at the ready to provide $2 million to Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign in France in 2015.
Things aren’t much better on the home front. MBZ has few qualms about keeping his own subjects in line the old-fashioned way, and his thuggish state security apparatus do that to devastating effect, roaming the streets in custom-made 4x4s with shackles built-in to the frame. Anyone who tweets out of turn is toast. One of the people languishing in Abu Dhabi’s jails is the award-winning human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. To describe Ahmed as a human rights activist seems rather reductive, he’s always been a lot more than that and his imprisonment — he tweeted criticism of the Abu Dhabi government and of the Sisi government in Egypt just before his arrest in March 2017 — weighs very heavily on everyone who ever had the pleasure of his company.
As Sheikh Issa’s torture tape shows, the Al Nahyans charge sheet extends beyond human rights abuses to outright criminality. Sheikh Issa was never actually convicted of anything — a UAE court acquitted him of torture, concluding that he had been injected with drugs and was the victim of the most elaborate and stupid blackmail plot in history — but Al Nahyan family members who have been charged with committing serious crimes abroad haven’t been able to rely on a corrupt judiciary to get them off the hook. In July 2008, a few months before the Manchester City takeover, eight Al Nahyan princesses were arrested on trafficking charges in Brussels after their domestic servants escaped from the Hilton Hotel and found their way to the police. It took nine years for the case to reach trial, but in June 2017 the eight princesses were convicted in absentia on trafficking charges.
And then there’s Yemen. Abu Dhabi has played a key role in the wilful and needless destruction of one of the world’s poorest countries, and bears significant responsibility for the humanitarian disaster unfolding there. The Saudi-led coalition has bombed schools, hospitals, wedding and funerals, and more than 1000 of the 5000 civilians they have killed since March 2015 were children, according to the United Nations. In September 2015, by which time Amnesty International had already documented “a pattern of raids targeting heavily-populated sites, including a mosque, a school and a market,” Yousef Al-Otaiba sent an email in which he outlined a strategy to limit the political fall-out. “At least temporarily, urge caution when selecting military targets,” advised Otaiba, which suggests he was quite happy for indiscriminate targeting to resume once the political heat had died down. One of the people to whom he sent the email was Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak.
There’s more — there’s a lot more — but suffice it to say that while Abu Dhabi may not be the most abusive government in the world, they are easily the most abusive government running a football club. Qatar run them a close second of course, and there should be no PSG supporters taking the moral high ground. A quick glance at the bookies odds for this year’s Champions League reveals the extent to which top level European football is now dependent on funding from either Abu Dhabi or Qatar. Manchester City are currently the favourites followed by Paris Saint-Germain. Third favourites are Bayern Munich, whose shirts are now sponsored by Qatar, fourth favourites are Barcelona, who only recently ended a seven-year sponsorship deal with Qatar, and fifth favourites are Real Madrid, who have sold the naming rights to their new stadium to Abu Dhabi.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an economic blockade, accusing Qatar of aligning itself with Iran and supporting Islamic terrorist groups. However, while these accusations masked ulterior motives, the antipathy is very real and it would come as no great surprise if the Al Nahyans decided to rename Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium the “Qatar/ISIS Alliance Arena.” How this squabble will play out on the proxy battleground of the Champions League is anyone’s guess but don’t expect either Qatar or Abu Dhabi to put grievances aside out of any love of the game. They have no love of the game nor any interest in its well-being.
So tune into that Amazon Prime documentary if you must, but you’ll have to wait for mine to get the full story. Funding has proven a bit of an issue and it doesn’t have a title yet, but the first episode is going to be called “Sheikhs’ Lies and Videotape.”