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How Abu Dhabi conquered European football
After achieving Treble glory, there can be little doubt that Man City is the crown jewel of Abu Dhabi's ambitious soft power project.
When Emirati royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan purchased Manchester City in 2008 from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister who fled his country on corruption charges, few could have imagined that the flailing club and its newfound owner would go on to change the landscape of English football.
At the time, City was in a terrible state. The club was in the midst of a 32-year major trophy drought and was facing serious debt, accumulated under Shinawatra’s turbulent ownership. Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) assumed control of the club and heralded a new era of spending. Sheikh Mansour, who has an estimated individual net worth of at least £17 billion and a family fortune of about $1 trillion, quickly transformed Manchester City into one of the richest sides in the sport.
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City have since emerged as the dominant force in the English Premier League. The club’s vast resources under Mansour’s ownership allowed them to build new training complexes, revolutionize coaching staff, expand general infrastructure, and attract some of the best players and coaches in the game.
The result? Seven Premier League titles in the past 12 years and five of the last six. And, most recently, the elusive UEFA Champion’s League title, which the club won on Saturday following a 1-0 victory against Inter Milan in Istanbul. The win also completed a historic Treble, with the European crown being added to their recent Premier League and FA Cup successes.
Sheikh Mansour was in attendance at Saturday’s final, seated alongside his eldest brother, UAE president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and Khaldoon al-Mubarak, City’s chairman and the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund (Mubadala Investment Company). Dressed in a bespoke suit with a baby-blue City scarf wrapped around his neck, the 52-year-old was all smiles as his investment reached the pinnacle of football.
While this was only the second time that Mansour has attended a City game, his presence seemed to amplify Abu Dhabi’s geopolitical influence and City’s role as an instrument for the UAE’s soft power and diplomatic policy.
In the 15 years since Sheikh Mansour first acquired City, the Emirati royal’s influence has dramatically increased. He is the vice president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, as well as the minister of presidential court. He is also involved in government-run companies and chairs a staggering number of councils and investment companies.
As Sheikh Mansour continued to gain more power domestically, he was also emerging as a a Gulf pioneer in leveraging football for political and diplomatic influence.
In 2013, Mansour and City chair Al-Mubarak began eying new investments. They established the City Football Group, which would grow into a global network that includes a total of 13 clubs around the world. The move was seen as an attempt to expand Abu Dhabi’s soft power influence through sports, while presenting a favourable image as magnanimous, football-loving investors.
For the most part, it worked.
A report published by English researchers in 2022 revealed that City benefited from a “sweetheart deal” with the local city council that allowed them to buy valuable land in Manchester for greatly reduced prices. The report added that the “traceable rental and sales income streams” from the 1,468 homes built on the sites so far “flow to Abu Dhabi interests only.”
“Our assessment of the Manchester Life development is that Manchester City Council ‘sold the family silver too cheap,’” the researchers concluded.
The UAE’s investment in UK real estate matches similar investments that the country has made in other places where it is expanding influence. This includes Egypt, where UAE investors gained control of Cairo’s Giza Zoo, the oldest in Africa and the Middle East. Abu Dhabi’s investment arm also owns all of the 36,000 parking meters in the city of Chicago, which sold them on a 75 year lease for over one billion dollars. With 61 years left to go in the deal, Abu Dhabi has already recouped its investment, and then some.
While the UAE’s expansive investments are part of the country’s longterm strategy to wean its dependence on oil and gas, Man City has also offered up diplomatic benefits for the ambitious Arab nation.
In 2015, President Xi Jinping of China and then-prime minister David Cameron where given a guided tour of Man City’s training complex by the club’s chair Al-Mubarak (who is also the chairman of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund). A few weeks later, China and the UAE set up a $10 billion investment fund, strengthening ties between China and the Middle East.
Sheikh Mansour and UAE president Sheikh Mohammed also met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following the Champion’s League final, which took place in Istanbul. The meeting follows a $40 billion trade agreement between Turkey and the UAE that was ratified after Erdogan’s reelection on May 31, 2023.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, which weaponizes football as a form of reputation laundering, and Qatar, which hosted the 2010 World Cup in an attempt to bolster its diplomatic profile, Abu Dhabi’s success with Man City lies in how it uses its strategic investments to further its own economic and developmental interests, all while establishing a loyal fanbase of dedicated supporters.
Beyond the geopolitical and economic ambitions, Sheikh Mansour’s substantial investments in Man City have certainly left a permanent mark on English football. With seemingly unlimited funds and boundless resources, City were able to hire the world’s best coach and create a near-perfect team that is seemingly unbeatable. It laid a blueprint for how a team can buy its way to eventual success, even when faced with more than 100 charges for breaching financial fair play rules. It also raised questions about the weakened competitive state of the Premier League and whether other resource-rich teams such as the Saudi-backed Newcastle United can follow in their footsteps.
City officials have long claimed that the club was not state-owned but rather owned by a passionate private individual (who now happens to be the country’s vice president). Though this is technically true, it is evidently clear that Man City has emerged among the crown jewels of the UAE’s global strategy. This feeling is shared by other members of the ruling family.
“I congratulate His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, on the occasion of the deserved coronation of the Manchester City team in the European Champions League,” wrote the UAE’s minister of interior Sheikh Said bin Zayed Al Nahyan on Twitter following Saturday’s match. “Congratulations to all Emiratis and all football fans in the world.”
As for Sheikh Mansour, the UAE vice president posted his own statement congratulating City fans and club staff for their achievements.
“We will continue to define and celebrate our success together,” he concluded.
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