Monday 23 September 2019

Sam Wallace: 'How can it be business as usual at Manchester City when Abu Dhabi is showing its other face?'

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour waves to supporters at his only Etihad appearance eight years ago CREDIT: ACTION IMAGES
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour waves to supporters at his only Etihad appearance eight years ago CREDIT: ACTION IMAGES

Sam Wallace

They will gather at Yas Marina on Sunday for the finale of the Formula One season in Abu Dhabi - a venue so unreal that it might be a video game, were you not able to reach out and touch it. All of those who have made the modern Abu Dhabi will be there, including the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan who controls the Gulf State with money to burn.

If Prince Mohamed is there then so too will be his brother Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed and the man who is Prince Mohamed’s chief adviser on policy, Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Mobile phone footage from October featured on the website of The National newspaper shows Prince Mohamed giggling at a speech by Khaldoon. Its very publication by an obedient newspaper – the only kind permitted in Abu Dhabi – indicates that the exchange was approved for wider consumption.

“Is he [Prince Mohamed] pleased with Man City?” Khaldoon is asked by the compere. And the man who is also the chairman of the current Premier League champions essays mock anxiety as he answers: “I hope bu Khaled [Prince Mohamed] is pleased with everything.” 

Those who study the politics of Abu Dhabi, some of whom have been barred from setting foot there, consider risible the official line peddled by City that their club has nothing to do with the machinery that rules the state, by which they mean Prince Mohamed. They say it is implausible that the ruling elite would not act as one, interconnected command chain that goes all the way back to Prince Mohamed, approving everything. From the purchase of an English football club, to handing down a life sentence to a British academic charged with spying.

It must be painful for City supporters, who look around the Premier League and see other owners with dubious pasts and opaque histories but the clue is in the name of their stadium, the sponsor on the shirts, the constant adverts on the digital boards, the men in the boardroom and there again popping up in the Amazon Prime documentary. The money that pays for Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, that builds a new training ground, that recruits Pep Guardiola – it all comes from the same place. It comes with the blessing of the man whose approval is sought for everything in Abu Dhabi, including the arrest and sentencing of Matthew Hedges.

Kristian Ulrichsen, who is a Middle East expert and a fellow at Seattle’s Rice University’s Baker Institute, is a friend of Hedges. Ulrichsen was prevented from entering Abu Dhabi in 2013 and put on a plane to London. The same fate befell the human rights researcher Nicholas McGeehan the following year although, as Ulrichsen reflects that is no longer the worst thing that happens to independent academics in Abu Dhabi. Hedges’ fate has rewritten Abu Dhabi’s relationship with academia overnight.

At New York University, which has an Abu Dhabi campus, 200 staff signed a letter calling on their institution to press for Hedges’ release. There is the problem with funding those troublesome academics who are given to asking awkward questions. Much more so than football fans, the most tribal consumers of the 21st century who cannot change allegiance, cannot vote out their ownership and want to be persuaded that it is other clubs, not theirs, who are the bad guys.

“That is Abu Dhabi state money that has been pumped into the club for the last ten years,” Ulrichsen says. “They can’t suddenly turn round and say ‘that [Hedges sentence] is nothing to do with us’. When the ruling family is the state where do you draw the line between the public and private purse?”

The United Arab Emirates investment in football goes a lot further than City, of course, with the Emirates airline, Qatari money, title sponsor of Arsenal’s stadium, and also on the shirts of Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and others. It hardly needs saying that the 2022 World Cup state which has turbo-charged PSG has its own issues but the last couple of weeks has confirmed that its richer sibling, Abu Dhabi, makes all the critical decisions.

It should be said that Hedges is not the only man imprisoned in Abu Dhabi whose treatment is considered an outrage but he is the one doing most damage to the brand. Putting aside for a moment the dreadful price paid by the Hedges family, it is hard not to wonder at the kaleidoscopic global reputational cock-up perpetrated this week by Abu Dhabi. The geopolitical equivalent of trying to run down the clock when you really need a goal to stay up.

It leaves City trying, laughably, to minimise accusations they are there to reflect glory on Abu Dhabi. The stadium banner proclaiming thanks to Sheikh Mansour was paid for, the club say, by supporters. No-one quite knows where to look when it comes to Guardiola’s yellow ribbons for those Catalan politicians held in prison by the Spanish state whom he visited recently. They were not visible at his Friday press conference. Presumably all concerned will just brazen it out.

What ideally would happen now? “Somebody at Manchester City would say something or maybe the fans would have a banner at the game,” Ulrichsen says. “I imagine it would probably be taken away. They will try to maintain the line that this is completely separate from the football and just ride it out. I don’t see any other way. I saw Stan Collymore was outspoken and Gary Lineker has a reputation for that. But these two are long since retired. Clearly if you are in the system, you have a lucrative livelihood, you won’t speak out.”

The hope of course is that Hedges’ release will be secured this week. The British academic community, 500 of whom signed a letter calling for Hedges’ release prior to his sentencing, will never forget Abu Dhabi’s conduct. Football, one assumes, will shrug sheepishly and carry on as normal. It usually does.

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