By James M. Dorsey
The following is the last of a two-part series on European football. — ED.
Brasher than the United Arab Emirates, certainly after the financial crisis in Dubai in 2008 that has left the emirate laden with debt, Qatar has emerged as the Middle East’s buyer per excellence with not only a willingness to wield more cash but also with more associated assets to leverage such as its Al Jazeera television network. Qatar Sports Investments last year matched Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City with its acquisition of a 70 percent stake in Paris Saint-Germain, which hasn’t won a match in the past month, as well as of Malaga FC by Qatari royal Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al Thani.
Qatar’s strategy, in contrast to that of the United Arab Emirates, appears to be anchored in a more fundamental policy that aims to make sports a pillar of national identity and has had greater success in commercially leveraging its assets. Al Jazeera, for one, is taking aim at Europe’s pay-TV market, using sport to build a global media brand. The broadcaster is racing to launch a new French channel in early June in time for the European Championships after spending some 300 million euros on broadcast rights to France’s soccer league, the Champions League and Europa League, as well as some top-flight games from Germany and Italy.
The broadcaster is also reported to be willing to pay big money in a bid for U.K. rights to the English Premier League now mostly held by News Corp affiliate BSkyB. Al Jazeera’s European campaign builds on its success as the most popular sports network in the Middle East and Africa, with two free and 15 pay channels, plus an English version with a dozen commentators and producers. To compete however with the likes of Sky and France’s Canal+, Al Jazeera will have to build a distribution platform of its own, involving deals with cable, telecommunications, and satellite operators.
Al Jazeera also recently acquired rights to the Champions League and UEFA’s Euro 2012 and 2016, as well as some top German and Italian matches and is looking at challenging Rupert Murdoch’s BskyB this spring for British rights to the English Premier League, at approximately $3 billion, the world’s most expensive soccer league broadcast rights. Al Jazeera could also bid for German Bundesliga rights. Al Jazeera acquired the rights under its new French company beIN SPORT together with TF1 and M6. IPTV operator Free has agreed to provide Al Jazeera a French platform, but the broadcaster has yet to sign similar agreements elsewhere in Europe as well as in the United States.
Spain and Germany have emerged as the greatest beneficiaries of the commercial offsets that energy-rich Gulf states hope to reap from their massive investments in professional sports. Sheikh Abdullah won a contract in May 2011 to develop the $550 million Marbella yacht port project a year after his acquisition of Malaga. The Royal Emirates Group is looking at investing in tourism and solar-energy projects, including a spa resort based on a former Arab settlement near Granada, Wadi Ash. Granada was Muslim-controlled when Spain was ruled by Muslims from 711 until the inquisition in 1492. German companies are big winners in the massive $65 billion business to prepare Qatar for the World Cup. Qatar has allocated on average 40 percent of its annual budget to infrastructure, including nine stadiums, for the next five years and German companies have or expect a significant chunk of the associated business.
Cultural changes in the wake of Arab acquisitions
Fans have so far been willing to accept cultural changes that accompany the Arab acquisitions such as Sheikh Abdullah’s replacement of bookmaker William Hill as Malaga’s jersey sponsor because gambling is banned under Islamic law with United Nations culture agency UNESCO and Royal Emirates planning to set up a pavilion about Arabic culture at Getafe’s stadium. Nonetheless, Real Madrid’s recent decision to remove a Christian cross from its official logo in what it described as the cost of doing business in a globalized world has sparked ire, particularly among anti-Muslim right-wingers. The move came as Real Madrid embarked on the construction of a $1 billion sport tourist resort in the United Arab Emirates scheduled to open in 2015.
Critics argue further despite Manchester City’s successes that Arab oil money is unlikely to quickly produce trophy winners. “If a club spends a lot of money quickly, it takes time for the team to settle down. There’s no easy way of winning the Premier League. You have to deserve it,” legendary former Manchester United goal scorer and Manchester United board member Sir Bobby Charlton told The Daily Mirror last year.
Charlton contrasted efforts to fast-track success on the back of Arab financial muscle with Manchester United manger Sir Alex Ferguson’s strategy of nurturing players from a young age. He said Manchester United had several promising young players. “Alex keeps them right until the exact moment he thinks that they’re ready for it, and then he’ll put them in. We’ve had more than our fair share of good young players and we’ve invested in a lot of young players too.” Charlton went on to argue that “you get a bit of an affiliation with a football club when this sort of thing is taking place, and not just piling loads and loads of money in,” a reference not only to Arab investments in Europe but also to the failure of the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes to develop soccer talent at a young age.
Some European clubs have learnt that deep pockets do not necessarily mean long-term commitment. Barely three months after acquiring Portsmouth, Emirati Sheikh Sulaiman Al Fahim sold the bulk of his stake to Saudi property tycoon Ali Al-Faraj amid reports that his flagship Hydra Village project in Abu Dhabi was floundering. Al-Faraj too had no intention of staying involved for long. Soon after the takeover, he announced that he was selling the club. But with no buyer on the horizon, Portsmouth went into receivership.
Risk in association with autocrats
Similarly, there is risk inherent in association with Middle Eastern autocrats. That risk is particularly acute at a time that autocracy is being challenged by a wave of popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Nevertheless, for some European clubs seduced by the lure of petro dollars, nothing is a bridge too far. Take the career of Al-Saad Gadaffi, the wanted son of the deposed mercurial Libyan dictator Moammar Qadhafi who engineered his country’s 7.5 percent stake in Juventus.
Al-Saad signed 10 years ago with Maltese team Birkirkara, but never showed up. Three years later, he joined Italy’s Perugia instead, but was suspended after only one game for failing a drug test. The incident earned him the reputation of being Italian Series A’s worst ever player.
Al-Saad’s dismal record didn’t stop him from enlisting in 2005 with Italy’s Udinese where he was relegated to the role of bench-warmer except for a 10-minute appearance in an unimportant late season match. That didn’t deter Samdoria president Riccardo Garrone, head of oil company Erg, from inviting him to train with his team in the dashed hope that it would open the door to Libyan oil contracts.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, ``The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.’’