If Roman Abramovich's 2003 purchase of Chelsea FC introduced English football to a new
generation of billionaires, the 2008 purchase of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed
al Nahyan introduced the game to its first family
The purchase by Mansour's Abu Dhabi United Group, from previous owner Thaksin Shinawatra,
was – to be charitable – something of a circus.
Thaksin, who had just had his assets frozen after
being removed from power in Thailand by a military coup, was desperate to sell.
And there was one man willing to buy and quickly.
Although there was initially some confusion as to who that was.
The face of the deal was Sulaiman al Fahim, a brash, young Emirati real estate
developer who played the Donald Trump character on a
local version of The Apprentice.
His catch phrase wasn't “you're fired” but “impress me”.
Many assumed he was the new owner and few were, indeed, very impressed.
He boasted that City would sign the best players in the world, including Cristiano Ronaldo
and said: “I always feel like I'm a kind of bulldozer,
a fully insured bulldozer.
If nobody likes it, it starts moving – even if there are cars in its way,
it has to crush the cars and move.
I can't stop.
If I have an idea, I have to do it."
It was quickly made clear he was merely a broker for the deal, and was removed shortly
after the purchase.
He was replaced by the bookish Emirati Khaldoon al Mubarak, who is, today, the
Al Fahim would later emerge as one of a slew of new owners at Portsmouth that would eventually
bring the club close to extinction.
His 42 day long tenure of Pompey was described by the Guardian
as “not only the shortest but surely the most ill-fated tenure in Premier League history.”
But at Manchester City in 2008 an orgy of transfer spending had begun.
Within hours of completing the take over Brazilian international Robinho
was signed for £32 million, hours before the transfer
deadline was to shut.
More was, of course, to follow.
Well over £1 billion was spent on transfers before this summer's transfer window.
In 2011, and with UEFA beginning to implement its Financial
Fair Play rules – instigated in part because of the spend
happy regimes of Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour – City made the largest single season loss
in the history of English football, £197 million
But little was known about Sheikh Mansour, other than he was a senior royal from the
United Arab Emirates.
He has never given an interview in the UK and has only attended one Manchester City
home game in 9 years.
Even less was known about his motives.
In the statement he released when buying the club he said: “In cold business
terms, Premiership football is one of the best
entertainment products in the world and we see this as a sound business investment."
But that made little sense given the relatively small figures involved in the football business.
After all, according to the FT, he made a £1.46
billion profit – through the International Petroleum
Investment Company – in a matter of months after investing £2 billion to help bail out
Barclays Bank during the 2008 financial crisis.
What we do know is that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan is one of the most powerful
and influential figures of the ruling Abu Dhabi
royal family, if not the whole Middle East.
Abu Dhabi is the largest and richest emirate of the United
Arab Emirates, a federation of seven royal families
which was formed in 1971 by Mansour's father Sheikh Zayed.
Abu Dhabi holds most of the oil, and therefore most of the power.
According to OPEC, the UAE oil reserve stands at close to a billion
Well over 90 per cent is found in Abu Dhabi.
Mansour is one of the “Bani Fatima”, the six sons that Sheikh Zayed fathered with his
The six hold an elevated position in Emirati society.
His brother is Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the UAE crown prince who controls the
military and the internal security apparatus.
Little is known of his early life, but a 2006 US State department cable, released by Wikileaks,
gave some biographical information when he came
on to their radar after being promoted to the UAE
“ He is Deputy Chairman of the Sheikh Zayed Charitable Foundation, and Chairman of the
International Petroleum Investment Corporation.
Mansour was an English student at Santa Barbara Community College in 1989.
He speaks English well, but his academic record was poor.”
He was appointed to key positions of state in his early 30s.
In 2004 he was appointed Minister of Presidential Affairs of the United Arab Emirates,
an important position that, as the US intelligence community noted at the time, effectively made
him the “gatekeeper” to the then ailing President
In 2009 he was appointed a deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.
He also held strategically important roles in the business world, and was appointed chairman
of the IPPC, one of the largest sovereign wealth
funds in the UAE.
Back then, the UAE presented itself as an open minded, liberal, reformist presence in
a troubled region; a safe place to do business and holiday.
But the truth was and is very different.
The UAE has virtually zero democracy, repressive freedom
of speech laws and uses the kafala system of sponsorship for its migrant population.
90% of the UAE's population are migrants, the vast majority poorly paid construction
workers, drivers and maids for India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh who are paid a pittance and live in miserable
Whilst Qatar and the 2022 World Cup has drawn a lone overdue focus on the treatment of migrant
workers in the Middle East, few realise that for many activists and human rights organisations
the problem is bigger, and worse, in the UAE.
“Workers are effectively working in conditions of forced
labour,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an early report on the treatment of migrant workers.
Today, Sheikh Mansour's initial purchase has morphed into something bigger.
City Football Club now owns or holds significant stakes in clubs
across the world: New York City FC, Melbourne City
FC, Club Atletico Torque in Uruguay, 20% of Yokohama F Marinos in Japan and just under
half of Spanish side Girona, which they own alongside
Pep Guardiola's brother.
Mansour also owns Al Jazira in the UAE, although this isn't part
In 2015, CFG sold a 13 per cent stake to China Media Capital.
A few months earlier, Chinese Premier Xi Jingping had visited Manchester
City's training complex and had a selfie taken with
Sergio Aguero and then prime minister David Cameron.
For the likes of Human Rights Watch, the purchase of Manchester City as well as CFG's stable
of clubs, is little more than “reputation laundering.”
“ Buying a club buys you cheap advertising space to promote your brands ‒ from airlines,
to tourism, to construction companies ‒ it
also buys you leverage with the press, who need access to
your players and your stadium, and it allows you to talk breezily about Abu Dhabi values
and draw people ’s attention away from the fact that
your record on human rights is grim and worsening,” said Human Rights Watch's Nicholas McGeehan.
It is true that hundreds of millions of pounds have have been spent on the club's academy
and rebuilding parts of East Manchester.
And some changes have been made to UAE law on the issue of
migrant workers – even though few have seen any meaningful change on the ground.
But the question remains: can the actions of a state really be separated from one of
the politicians responsible for them, even if they are a billionaire
who brings glory to your club?
For Iyad el Baghdadi, an entrepreneur and activist who was born and raised in, and later
deported from, the UAE for translating videos relating
to the Arab Spring, it is impossible to separate the
“ The majority of these figures could not have become independently rich if it wasn’t
for them being royals in an oil-rich absolute monarchy ... So
no, the wealth of the ruling family definitely cannot
be described as “private” wealth.”
The results on the pitch and around the Etihad stadium in Manchester have been stunning.
Since Sheikh Mansour's takeover Manchester City
have won two Premier League titles and are now
regulars in the UEFA Champions League.
Reputation laundering, profit, ego; whatever the real reason for Sheikh Mansour to purchase
Manchester City there's no denying that he has transformed the club into one of the world's
But at what cost?