Good vs bad: When Arab billionaires buy football clubs

With rumours of a UAE buyer of Liverpool FC, we ask if Middle Eastern money is always a good thing.

Meryl D'Souza April 27, 2016

It started as a rumour on the first of this month with UK tabloid Daily Star reporting that Liverpool FC was the subject of a mega-money takeover by a UAE billionaire. Given the date, we passed it off as an April Fool’s prank.

But the news has been gaining momentum in recent weeks with the most recent story linking none other than the country's president, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, as the highest bidder.

For more than a decade now, the must-have toy for every billionaire in the world has been a European football club. Undoubtedly, the biggest benefactor of this trend has been Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. 

Ever since the Russian oligarch took over the London club in 2003, allegedly just days before it was due to fall into administration, The Blues have notched up 15 trophies that include:

  • 4 Premier Leagues: 2004/05, 2005/06, 2009/10, 2014/15
  • 4 FA Cups: 2006/07, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2011/12
  • 3 League Cups: 2004/05, 2006/07, 2014/15
  • 2 Community Shields: 2005, 2009
  • 1 Champions League: 2011/12
  • 1 Europa League: 2012/13

It was only a matter of time before others followed suite. In a bid to put Middle Eastern businesses on the map, Arab billionaires started sponsoring clubs, putting their company name front and centre on team shirts. 

In 2008, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City for around $300 million. The ink from the signature deal wasn’t even dry before the criticism began.

As the years went on, there was talk about Manchester City ruining football and buying trophies. Cynics conveniently forgot to talk about the Abu Dhabi owners ending the club’s 40-year drought with a Premier League trophy in the 2013-14 season before adding another Premier League title, an FA Cup and a Capital One Cup to that growing trophy cabinet. 

There’s no talk about how the owners took the 48,000-seat stadium from 2008 and slowly converted it into a stadium that will have 61,000-seats by 2017. You don’t see a lot of headlines about the $292 million academy they built in 2014 that now trains sons of ex-Manchester United players like Robin van Persie, Phil Neville and Darren Fletcher. And there’s absolutely no talk of the fact that fans can buy a City season ticket for less than $430 - cheaper than anywhere else in the Premier League.

Elsewhere in Europe, Paris Saint Germain’s success in Ligue 1 has been well documented since Qatar Sports Investment took over in 2011. They’ve been sweeping everything there is to win in France. Although they haven’t been as successful in the Champions League, they’ve firmly established themselves as one of the best teams in Europe, if not the world.

But again the Qatari owner’s investment to the club has been far more than just trophies. The Independent’s John Lichfield wrote about how the owners have helped to curb racial tension within the Parc des Princes. It’s not just the clubs that these Middle East investors improve. Knowingly or unknowingly, they raise society standards.

Of course there’s always another side to the coin. Where Manchester City and PSG have excelled with their Middle Eastern owners, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Málaga have deteriorated.

Forest's Kuwaiti owner, Fawaz Mubarak Al-Hasawi, has asked for the fans to be patient as he continues to kick out and bring in managers through the club’s revolving door, after yet another poor season. 

But Forest, a club that has more new beginnings than Christmases, can take solace by looking at Leeds United’s predicament. After all, at least Al-Hasawi (below) hasn’t abandoned his club altogether, like GFH Capital.

A fan’s biggest nightmare in any club takeover is the owners treating the club as just another business venture to be sold for profit. Leeds United fans have seen the promise of better days stripped away after the club’s owners, GFH Capital – a subsidiary of Bahrain-based Gulf Finance House - announced it sold more than half of its 100 per cent holding in the club less than six months after purchase for a profit of $776,000.

In Spain, the riches of Qatar’s Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani (below) was just the shot in the arm Málaga CF needed to go from also-rans to Champions League qualifiers. But suddenly, Al-Thani turned off the tap; many speculate he was bored. The Spanish club had to sell its stars such as Santiago Cazorla, Joris Mathijsen, Jose Rondon and Ruud van Nistelrooy to cope with the strain. 

If Liverpool does indeed have an Emirati billionaire lining up to take over the club, he would do well to follow Sheikh Mansour’s example and treat the club as more than just a plaything. That would be the greatest gift to the fans.