It’s been said that an optimal method to get to the bottom of many political or social question or problem is to ‘follow the money’. Even for a game like soccer, any questions about the professional sport can always be tied back to money. Cash is king in the professional soccer industry. In the past few years, Europe has seen a rise in cash from one of the most unlikely places: the Middle East. Yet there is little known about these companies and groups that invest so heavily in the world’s game.
To begin, understand that not every nation in the Middle East is the same. While the label “Middle East” is a geographic term given to the area by the Western nations, it often creates the image that the people living there are the same. In a similar way, a person from New York City would most likely be different from a person living in Mobile, Alabama. While there are general similarities in culture, there are distinct differences among Middle Eastern countries. This distinction is important because the groups and companies that are investing in European leagues typically come from a few nations in the Middle East. This is due to historic political developments which have benefited certain areas of the Middle East over the course of the last one hundred years.
Part one of this series on the influence of the Middle East in European football will focus on the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E), a small country located on the eastern portion of the Arabian Peninsula. Home to just over 9 million people, it is only slightly larger than the United States’ South Carolina. Yet, the nation’s vast oil reserves make it the second largest economy in the Middle East. Fly Emirates is a company based in the U.A.E and services the most air travel in the Middle East and is owned by the U.A.E government. This fact had no bearing on Fly Emirates’ decision to partner with Arsenal in a deal worth $180 million (£100 million) in 2004. Fly Emirates extended their sponsorship through the 2018/19 season in 2012, which is worth $240 million (£150 million). The sponsorship has paid off for the airline, making their company a household name to any fan of British football. The Arsenal-Emirates partnership is one of the most recognizable in the Barclay’s Premier League (BPL) and one that has benefited both parties. Emirates has expanded their market with a stable and successful team and has added some of the most prolific soccer clubs in world soccer to its family, including Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Paris Saint-Germain among others. Their airline would surely come to mind for anyone traveling in that part of the world.
Fly Emirates is not the only U.A.E based company to invest in soccer. Spanish club Getafe was bought by Royal Emirates Group in 2011. The group had a vast and diverse portfolio including investments in oil and other energy sources, real-estate, tourism, and healthcare. The club was purchased for somewhere between $101-130 million (€70-90 million). Royal Emirates managing director Dr. Kaiser Rafiq said that part of the reason the group wanted to invest in a European club was to bridge the gap between Europe and the Middle East in anticipation for the 2022 World Cup to be held in Qatar. The Royal Emirates clearly see a financial opportunity to grow their investments considering the close proximity of Qatar to the U.A.E. Some have projected that Qatar will have to hold twice as many people as their current population during the month long tournament. Air traffic and travel could be redirected to surrounding countries, which means more money in the pockets of the Royal Emirates Group.
Perhaps the most notable involvement of U.A.E influence in European football is Abu Dhabi United Group’s (ADUG) purchase of BPL club Manchester City in 2008. Upon purchasing the club, the group cleared Manchester City’s debt and purchased 22 players in four years, spending an average of $34.7 million on each player. The club emblazoned Etihad Airways on their jerseys for ten years and renamed its stadium to the Etihad Stadium, both in honor of the Abu Dhabi airline that is owned by the ADUG. The owner of Manchester City is none other than Sheikh Mansour, the current ruling monarch of the U.A.E. The spokesperson of the ADUG at the time of the purchase stated,
We really have deep pockets. By closing a deal with one of the players (on Monday) they can see we are serious in developing the club into one of the top four.
The wealthy ruling family of U.A.E did not shy away from the fact that they intended to turn the traditionally working-class club into a club where money is no object, to the chagrin of some long-time supporters of City.
For powerful groups in the U.A.E it is a simple choice to use their money abroad instead of building up soccer within their own nation. Despite the nation qualifying for a World Cup only one time out of eleven chances (and finishing last in that World Cup), the nation’s corporations would not be able to reach global markets if they focused solely on their domestic league. Their influence in Europe has certainly paid off, and they are nowhere near close to finished seeing the true return on their investments.
The influence of the Middle East in European football is deep and powerful. In a world where businesses and nations are competing in global markets to stay relevant, the U.A.E. has forged a path into the world of sports. To find the depth of their influence, all you have to do is ‘follow the money’.