Analysis: The Man Utd bid and Qatar’s global sporting intent

An offer to buy Manchester United signals Qatar’s continuing ambition to be seen as a global sport powerhouse, analysts say.

Manchester United fans
Manchester United fans display anti-Glazer banners at Old Trafford [File: Oli Sarff/AFP]

Doha, Qatar – Avram Glazer was in the stands last month to watch Manchester United lift their first trophy in six years.

United’s English League Cup triumph over Newcastle could very well be the club’s last trophy with the Glazer family as its owners.

Avram’s celebrations were met with protests just a few rows ahead of him. Some disgruntled fans pointedly waved a banner reading “Glazers Out” at the American businessman in a continuing demand for his family’s removal from the club’s helm.

In November, the Glazer family put the club up for sale after almost 18 tumultuous years of ownership.

British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, the founder and head of the INEOS chemicals conglomerate, submitted a bid seeking 69 percent ownership of the club, the same percentage owned by the Glazers.

The other top bid seeks full ownership and was submitted by Qatari businessman Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, the son of a former Qatari prime minister and chairman of a major Qatari bank.

Both parties were invited to submit revised bids by Wednesday night, but the deadline was extended amid confusion between the current owners and the interested parties.

The press release from Jassim’s Nine Two Foundation promised a rosy future for the club if he were to be successful, including “investment in the football teams, the training centre, the stadium and wider infrastructure, the fan experience and the communities the club supports”.

His bid to take over one of the most popular football clubs in the world comes on the heels of Qatar hosting the World Cup last year and winning the right to host the Asian Games in 2030.

Jassim’s bid has not come as a surprise to experts who say it aligns with his country’s ambition to be seen as a sporting powerhouse.

His interest in Manchester United suggests that Qatar is embarking on the next stage of this ambition, according to Ross Griffin, an assistant professor at Qatar University whose research interests include the portrayal of the Arab world in Western media and the relationship between sport and postcolonial society.

“Qatar’s ambition [in sport] is breaking up into two branches,” he said. The first will continue to focus on Qatar hosting sporting events such as the Asian Cup in 2024 and the Asian Games in 2030 while the potential purchase of a Premier League football club would be part of the second branch.

Griffin said that by hosting last year’s FIFA World Cup, Qatar was able to showcase Arab society to the Western world in a way that changed preconceived notions of the region. “They are thinking that we brought over a million people to Qatar and they saw our culture and society up close, so let’s take Qatar to the world now,” he said.

Ambitions for the club’s future

Jassim also wants to be associated with the club that he grew up following.

Jassim’s bid was submitted through his Nine Two Foundation, the name an apparent nod to Manchester United’s famous “class of 92” squad, which won several titles during the 1990s. It is also the year Jassim reportedly started supporting the club.

He has revealed lofty ambitions for the future of the men’s and women’s teams at all levels. According to the Nine Two Foundation’s press release, the debt-free bid “plans to return the club to its former glories both on and off the pitch”.

Griffin believes that because “you don’t need to invest billions towards establishing the brand” of such a well-known football club, more money can instead be put towards rebuilding the team’s Old Trafford Stadium, improving its Carrington training facilities and, importantly, investing in the local community.

“If you want to bring Qatar to the United Kingdom, you have to show Qatar in all the positive things that it can do,” he said. “You integrate yourself as part of the fabric and the community.”

“Qatar’s greatest asset is that it is financially very well endowed,” the professor said, “and it will use that money to create a positive rapport, something the Glazers have never done.

“Over the years, the Glazers have extracted money and taken it to the other side of the Atlantic, but Qatar is saying it will do the opposite by investing back in the community.”

Fans’ concerns

The city of Manchester in northwest England is no stranger to Arab football ownership. In 2008, United’s cross-city rival, Manchester City, was bought by a business group backed by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.

About 240km (150 miles) to the north, another English football club, Newcastle United, is owned by a consortium led by a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund that took over in 2021.

However, some Manchester United fans have rejected Jassim’s bid as an attempt to “sportswash” Qatar’s human rights record, which has been questioned by Western media in the years leading up to the World Cup and during the tournament.

A group of the club’s supporters showed their displeasure with Jassim’s bid at United’s Premier League game against Southampton on March 12, displaying a banner that read, “No Qatari sportswashing at United!”

However, some experts said the influx of capital from the Gulf region into international sport is not linked to image-building or “sportswashing”.

“This isn’t about soft power. It’s about money and governance,” said Craig LaMay, director of the journalism and strategic communications programme at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus.

LaMay, who co-authored the book Football in the Middle East, said, “The Arab Gulf states are among the very few who have the money and are uniquely positioned to pay for these huge sporting ambitions – from club ownership to the Olympics to the World Cup.”

He said the oil- and gas-rich Gulf states will continue to invest in football “as long as international sports organisations need funding for their competitions”, which in turn will help these states increase their visibility internationally.

“Football and other sports have always focused on the West as their institutions, and the governing bodies have also been based there,” LaMay said. “As they are challenged by new owners and investors from a different region, the global governance of sport could well change too. There will be resentment from those ceding power and their hold as well.”

Another group of Manchester United fans has raised concerns about the bidder’s “close links” to the Qatari state and the club’s potential association with a state that is directly linked to French club Paris Saint-Germain through its shareholding organisation Qatar Sports Investment (QSI).

“There are questions about sporting integrity given the exceptionally close links between this bidder and the owners of other European club including PSG,” the Manchester United Supporters Trust said in a statement after the initial bid was made.

The rules of UEFA, Europe’s football governing body, stipulate that no two clubs may participate in the same competition if they are directly or indirectly controlled by the same ownership group.

With both Manchester United and PSG placed near the top of their respective domestic leagues, a possibility of a meeting between them may arise should they qualify for the UEFA Champions League or Europa League. While QSI is a subsidiary of a Qatari state-owned sovereign wealth fund, the Nine Two Foundation hasn’t declared any explicit links to the state.

Others, meanwhile, have taken to social media to express their relief that the club may finally change hands from its unpopular American owners. They tie this relief with the expectation that the move would bring a change in fortunes for the club’s trophy cabinet, which had not been added to for six years until the League Cup win last month.

They have welcomed promises to invest back into the club, and restore it to its former glory. For them, it may be an investment that helps place the club back on a top perch.

In terms of what there is to gain for the state of Qatar, Griffin said the answer is simple:

“Qatar gets the association with one of the most glamorous football clubs in the world, a powerful brand, a social media army of millions and a worldwide presence that you can’t put a price tag on.”

Source: Al Jazeera