UAE can't replicate Manchester City's easy victories

UAE can't replicate Manchester City's easy victories
Comment: Moving up the regional league table will be tough with rulers known for foul play, writes Tom Charles.
8 min read
10 Jan, 2018
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling celebrates yet another victory for the UAE-owned team [AFP]
Manchester City Football Club, owned by Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is running away with the Premier League title, and being lauded for its style of play and array of talent.

The UAE's investment in Man City is proceeding as planned for the Emiratis. But the same cannot be said for its military and political playbook, and 2018 looks set to be a messy year for the absolute monarchy as it bids to increase its power and defeat regional rivals.


Man City's rise from also-rans to serious contenders and now England's top football team is inextricably linked to the UAE's wealth and the hunger for power of the Emirates' elite. The club's chairman since 2008 has been Khaldoon al-Mubarak, right hand man of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and CEO of the mega-corporation Mubadala, which has assets of £50 billion, and invests globally in real estate, pharmaceuticals, and aeronautics.

Simon Pearce is both a Manchester City director and Abu Dhabi's head of strategic communications. Pearce made his name at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, whose clients have included Blackwater, Nicolai Ceaucescu and Union Carbide, leading one American commentator to say: "when evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed-dial".

Abu Dhabi hired Pearce to protect and promote Abu Dhabi's reputation. Part of this is in the nurturing of Manchester City as a key element of the UAE brand.

On the back of the Emirates' investment in Manchester, City Football Group was created, a holding company that now owns or co-owns six clubs across the planet. City is now a global franchise, with New York City FC, City Football China, Melbourne City, Yokohama, Atletico Torque in Uruguay and Girona in Spain now in its orbit.

By 2012, Mansour had invested £1 billion in Manchester City. In football, even this sum does not guarantee total domination, but in May the club will lift their third premier league title in six years - having won the league only twice in their previous 132 years - swatting aside more decorated clubs, including their illustrious neighbours United, with ease.

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Behind the glory

But behind the beautiful football is a darkness that is becoming increasingly understood. Should this understanding of the reality behind the glamour of the Emirates become widespread, it will become an existential threat to the UAE's ruling monarchy, or at least to their designs on power.

City's ownership model appears familiar to English football fans: a corporate model based on private wealth. But in reality, City's wealth is not private wealth, and like Etihad Airways (Man City's main shirt and stadium sponsor) and the Emirates Airline (sponsors of Arsenal's stadium) it represents public wealth appropriated by a tiny elite headed by a ruling monarchy.

City Football Group is kept as separate as possible from the UAE in public discourse to maintain the appearance of conventional corporate ownership. To this end, Sheikh Mansour has only attended one Man City game. In truth, the UAE is not separate from its corporate investments, and Manchester City is not separate from Abu Dhabi's propaganda machine.

In England, this is not deemed worthy of too much debate and football pundits heap praise on the team's exceptionally talented coach, Pep Guardiola, to explain the club's superlative performances. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Man City are sometimes referred to as "Abu Dhabi's Man City".

Human Rights Watch has described the UAE's use of Manchester City as "reputation laundering". Such an action is only undertaken if the launderer has something to hide, something that might threaten their reputation or power. And in the UAE's case, reputation and power go hand in hand.

Manchester City's visionary manager, Pep Guardiola,
is often credited with the club's success,
ignoring the billion-pound investment
from the UAE's rulers [Getty]

An absence of democracy and transparency at home enables the Sheikhs to maintain power, and therefore their stunning wealth.

But as an expanding global brand, the UAE is investing in countries with greater levels of press and democratic freedoms and this means that the truth of Emirati policies is vulnerable to exposure and scrutiny.

What are these policies?

Foreign policy

In the Yemen war, the UAE's decision to throw their lot in with Saudi Arabia has led to an expanded Emirati power base in the region, but it has come at the cost of a severely damaged reputation and a military quagmire with no victory in sight.

In Yemen's oil-rich eastern province of Hadhramout, the UAE is seeking to secure long-term control. It already controls the ports and runs detention centres in which hundreds of alleged al-Qaeda-affiliated detainees are held. In the city of Mukalla, the UAE's Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed reopened the airport, immediately granting a route to Etihad.

Read more: Has the UAE colonised Socotra, Yemen's island paradise?

But there are documented human rights violations in the UAE's spheres of influence in south and east Yemen including secret prisons in Aden and Mukalla, areas liberated from al-Qaeda, where people have undergone brutal torture.

On January 3, Norway suspended weapons and ammunition exports to the UAE

The Saudi-Emirati-led coalition has left the Middle East's poorest nation on the verge of a "famine of Biblical proportions" and has killed more than 10,000 civilians.

These facts have not gone unnoticed by campaigners, and on January 3, Norway suspended weapons and ammunition exports to the UAE. In 2016, Norway made $9.7 billion from weapons exports to the Emirates, but a campaign led by prominent members of parliament led to a more "precautionary approach" to arms sales, according to the country's foreign ministry.

"We are hopeful that the decision taken by the Norwegian government can act as an example for other exporting nations to act responsibly in the face of repeated violations of international humanitarian law," said Norway's foreign ministry spokesperson.

Such statements are no longer falling on deaf ears in the UK, a major supplier to the UAE. The opposition Labour party has vowed to halt arms sales to the UAE should it come to power, and it is certainly making more noise than previous incarnations of Labour ever have over arms sales to abusive countries. The emirs will hope that Prime Minister Theresa May can hold her minority government together to prevent a very real shift in UK foreign policy.

In London last month, an African Lives Matter anti-slavery demonstration drew thousands of protesters to the Libyan embassy. On their way there, they also protested at the Emirati embassy over Dubai's alleged key role in modern day slavery. It was a significant demonstration but didn't attract much media attention - nevertheless, it will have concerned the controlling UAE authorities.

Regional scene

Regionally, the UAE's increasing bombast is not going down well. Emirati foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed recently insulted Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, using social media to claim the last Ottoman governor of Medina, Fakhri Pasha, had stolen treasures from the city and removed them to Turkey.

[Click to enlarge]

The Emiratis then implemented a ban on Tunisian women flying on the Emirates airline to the UAE. It was another move that caused controversy, and another move away from Arabism. Despite a pro-US/Israel stance, there is an aversion to democratic reform anywhere in the region, including a particular loathing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Domestic issues

The international scene looks difficult to manage for the Emiratis, while the domestic scene is also something of a house of cards. Human Rights Watch describes an "intolerance of criticism" on the part of the UAE authorities, and this aversion to openness and scrutiny drives a raft of abusive practices at home.

Human rights organisations are banned from entering the UAE, blocking much-needed transparency. Even speaking with a human rights organisation incurs a penalty of arbitrary detention or imprisonment, while human rights activism is carefully surveilled.

The UAE is known to hold people, including foreign nationals, in detention for months and even years at a time. These "disappearances" are carried out in secret and go unacknowledged by the UAE government. "Disappeared" people undergo interrogation, and Amnesty International has said that, upon release, some have reported being tortured, which they say is common and "committed with impunity".

The highest court in the UAE is notorious for prosecuting individuals based on vaguely worded charges related to national security. Suspects are denied their right to effective defence, and evidence is often taken that has been obtained by torture.

More widely understood is the treatment of the UAE's migrant workforce, which comprises 90 percent of the working population. Foreign workers are denied collective bargaining rights and trade unions are banned in the UAE. Any worker that goes on strike faces deportation and a one-year ban from entering the UAE, leaving them vulnerable to ill-treatment and abuse which includes forced labour and human trafficking.


Manchester City have become the world's richest football club thanks to their Emirati owners. When City lift the Premier League title in May, with a team that will long be remembered as one of the greatest in English football history, it will be a satisfying moment for the club's owners.

But their other projects are not likely to run so smoothly in 2018. While criticism of domestic abuses can easily be snuffed out at home, scrutiny abroad will continue. And in Yemen, the UAE is trashing its own reputation in order to increase its regional influence.

Expect "reputation laundering" through impressive-looking foreign investments to be shadowed by reputation vandalism throughout a messy year for the previously unflappable Emirati elite.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.