Editor’s Note: This is the third chapter in a four-part series on the Manchester City football team that will be published Monday through Thursday of this week. You can read the first chapter here and the second chapter here.
Pep Guardiola never seems to stand still — and doesn’t always seem to have himself under full control. On the sidelines, he paces, screams instructions at his players, cheers wildly and bubbles over with excitement. But when he meets Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, he’s like a different person. In the glitzy documentary “All or Nothing,” for which the filmmakers accompanied Manchester City for a full year, Guardiola is well-mannered, almost sheepish, as he makes forced small-talk with the club’s billionaire owner. Viewers can’t really understand what the two are saying, but the main thing is that they both are smiling and laughing.
“All or Nothing,” an Amazon documentary, presents the team trip to Abu Dhabi like a marketing video that could have been produced by the country’s own tourism authority, showing friendly players wearing the team’s sky-blue jerseys, the typically British characters working in the Man City laundry, and the ever-sartorially skilled Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the team’s chairman. The sheikh’s right-hand man can be seen smiling gently and confidently, cutting a good figure next to former Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, a passionate Man City fan.
The chairman is, as the British would say, soft spoken — and it becomes clear from posts on social media that the team’s fans love him. “What a blessing our chairman is,” reads one such post, “the best chairman in the world, so smart, so humble.” And: “City fans are lucky to have him.”
But what does this man really stand for? How important is he for Abu Dhabi, the emirate that only half-heartedly tries to hide its true role in Manchester City’s transformation into a European powerhouse? How does team management, allegedly at the behest of Sheikh Mansour, run the Premier League club?
Documents from the whistleblower platform Football Leaks provide a peak behind the curtain at the team’s internal operations. Unlike “All or Nothing,” the resulting image is unembellished.
In August 2010, two years after he bought the team, Sheikh Mansour attended a Manchester City game for the first time. The oil billionaire grinned and waved at the crowd while the underlings next to him in the VIP box looked on, the tension clearly visible on their faces. Even Mubarak seemed nervous. But the team delivered, defeating Liverpool 3:0, and the visit ended in success. It still remains the only time Mansour has attended a game in over 10 years of ownership.
It is an open secret that the sheikh doesn’t meddle in the management of his investment. Khaldoon Al Mubarak can also be forgiven for not having time to take too close an interest in day-to-day team tactics or financial details. After all, “His Excellence,” as he is commonly referred to, is also head of a company called Mubadala and of the Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) back in Abu Dhabi. Those two jobs could also help explain the investment in Manchester City: Mubadala is a state-owned investment company, responsible for investing the emirate’s oil billions around the world. The EAA, meanwhile, is an arm of the government, directing Abu Dhabi’s international strategy.
Manchester City is “the soft-power strategy of the ruling family,” says Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University. He sees the sheikh’s investment in Manchester City as the product of political calculation: The ruling family, he believes, views English football as a vehicle for marketing Abu Dhabi and improving relations between the emirate and the West.
But what about the official claim that City is merely the hobby investment of a passionate football fan?
Davidson points to the club chairman. “Khaldoon Al Mubarak is the de facto prime minister of Abu Dhabi,” he says. Why, then, should he be responsible for managing Sheikh Mansour’s hobby, particularly given that Mansour is below Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, MbZ for short, in Abu Dhabi’s hierarchy? “The responsible people at Man City are primarily the crown prince’s men rather than Sheikh Mansour’s,” says Davidson. In addition to being crown prince in Abu Dhabi, MbZ commands the armed forces of United Arab Emirates.
The New Football Leaks Revelations
In the war in Yemen, UAE troops are fighting against Houthi militias and the Muslim Brotherhood and in 2017, the Associated Press published a detailed story about secret prisons run by UAE where torture is commonplace. UAE has denied the accusations.
“Under MbZ’s rule, the UAE has become a brutal, torturing police state at home and a perpetrator of war crimes abroad” says Nicholas McGeehan, a native of Scotland who worked for Human Rights Watch for years and has been a consistent critic of the Manchester City owners. “The situation in the UAE is appalling.” He says there isn’t a single human rights activist in the country any more. “I remember asking colleagues at Human Rights Watch if there is any other country with that situation, with nobody in the country who you could talk to,” McGeehan says. “And they said: North Korea and Turkmenistan.” Those who dare to say anything negative about the ruling family are arrested.
Abu Dhabi isn’t the only Gulf state to have discovered football in recent years. Its rival Qatar, for example, is hosting the next World Cup and has also spent almost 2 billion euros on boosting Paris Saint-Germain to the pinnacle of European football. But the wealth of Abu Dhabi, the largest of the emirates, has meant rapidly rising influence in the past decades. And Crown Prince MbZ is also allied with the crown prince in Saudi Arabia, who is currently facing accusations he ordered the murder of a critical Saudi journalist in Turkey.
One of MbZ’s PR men is Simon Pearce, an Australian who is part of City leadership and the most important link between Abu Dhabi and Manchester. He is virtually unknown to the public, but internally, he is viewed with a combination of fear and respect. He also works for Mubarak’s Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) in Abu Dhabi.
From there, he issues instructions to his colleagues in Manchester and informs them both of the ruling family’s desires and of negotiations with the team’s Arab sponsors. When Man City makes a fake deal with a supposed marketing rights agency, Pearce takes care of the details on the emirate’s side. Pearce, after all, has to get permission from Khaldoon Al Mubarak before making multimillion-euro transfers. And usually a brief email from his chairman is enough: “OK, go ahead.”
Before joining the world of football, Pearce worked for Burson-Marsteller, a PR agency specialized in discrete problem-solving and image control for extremely influential clients. For years, a sarcastic slogan for the company has been making the rounds: “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.”
Pearce is an image consultant who carefully weighs risks against how they might be perceived externally, a man who leaves nothing to chance. As such, he is deeply allergic to critical questions from human rights organizations.
In August 2013, Nicholas McGeehan from Human Rights Watch filed a request for information on the basis of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, a law which allows citizens the right to review official documents. Such requests must be honored within a specific time limit.
McGeehan was interested in examining a contract between the city of Manchester and the Man City football club pertaining to the site where the team had built Etihad Campus, a sporting and stadium complex not far from the city center. Pearce wrote to other team executives that he had taken a close look at the document in question and saw little risk that it would provide the human rights organization with cause for criticism. There was no way to prevent the document from being released, he continued, but there was no hurry either. “He should get it on the morning of the final day Sept. 1st,” he wrote, a date that was still two weeks away at the time of his email. “I want to disrupt any momentum.”
When contacted by journalists with the EIC network for comment, officials at the club said they would not respond to the questions. “The attempt to damage the Club’s reputation is organized and clear,” a spokesperson wrote.
Away from the public limelight, Man City executives have shown themselves to be fond of flexing their muscles. Their confidential operations receive code names, while conflicts with football associations are conducted through discrete diplomacy or by applying internal pressure.
The hiring of Pep Guardiola was also a secret mission. Arguably the best trainer in the world, he was the badly needed, final building block in Abu Dhabi’s prestige project, which was to be a model of both entrepreneurial excellence and sporting success.
The contract Guardiola signed with Manchester bears the date Oct. 10, 2015. The salary and bonus payments it guarantees are world class: In his first season, he was to earn 13.5 million pounds, a sum that would rise to 16.75 million one year later. But it’s the timing that makes the signing of the contract so unusual: It happened when he was just two months into a new season at the helm of Bayern Munich. Both Manchester and the trainer said nothing publicly about the contract.
Several weeks later, however, a journalist from the Sunday Mirror wrote that Man City’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain had met with Guardiola in Barcelona and speculated that a deal was in the making between Pep and City. It was, of course, inaccurate: The deal had already been signed. “I’ll call him and tell him we want it removed,” team spokesman Simon Heggie wrote to team officials. Later, he wrote another message informing them that the article had been taken offline. “I’ll send a note around to other media to tell them to ignore it.” It allowed the team to control the announcement of their new trainer — an announcement that didn’t take place until over a month later.
Control is everything, and Man City officials are fully aware that their team and their Arab owners are viewed with skepticism. But with success on the pitch and through professional PR work, they have managed to control the narrative in Britain. Many in the UK, a country which celebrates itself as the origin of modern-day rule of law and democracy, have nothing but good things to say about top UAE officials, who oversee a country where the death penalty is imposed for divorce and couples can be sent to prison for kissing in public.
To make sure it stays that way, the communications professionals in Manchester examine the potential risks of each step they take — such as the selection of sponsors, and the question of how far is too far when it comes to making money.
In early 2014, team executives were discussing a potential deal with the Dubai-based construction company Arabtec. At the time, the firm was led by Hasan Ismaik, the controversial owner of the football team 1860 München, Munich’s second team. Manchester ordered the compilation of a risk report for the possible deal. It noted that the Guardian, only a short time before, had written about the dire conditions in Abu Dhabi for migrant workers.
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“Arabtec is implicated in this story,” the risk analysis noted. Furthermore, Arabtec workers had gone on strike in May 2013, “which resulted in violence and deportations.” And in 2009, the BBC had revealed how poorly Arabtec treated its employees. Indeed, the treatment of laborers from abroad has become a constant problem for the newly rich desert states. Abu Dhabi relies heavily on workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who have built vast numbers of skyscrapers in the desert sands in the last 40 years.
The conclusion of the risk report was clear: “The partnership with Arabtec does have significant potential to damage the perception and standing of the Club and its owners.” Such a deal, the report noted, could result in problems with fans, negative responses from other sponsors or criticism from human rights activists.
Vicky Kloss, a spokeswoman for City, sent an email to team executives warning them to avoid a sponsorship deal with Arabtec. “I think it’s the biggest single risk to (our) reputation we have faced since 2008,” she wrote. “The gap between what we (MCFC/City) do and what they (Arabtec) do is unbridgeable.” She also reminded executives of Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights watch. A deal with Arabtec, she wrote, “would be like winning the jackpot for him.”
City leadership, however, overrode such concerns and decided to take Arabtec’s money: 7 million pounds per year. But team executives only signed a regional advertising contract with the construction firm. The connection between Manchester City and Arabtec would only be publicized in Arab states, Russia and Turkey — countries in which democratic values and human rights are not necessarily at the top of the priority list.
In May 2014, Ferran Soriano, Hasan Ismaik and Khaldoon Al Mubarak held a sky-blue Manchester jersey with “Arabtec” printed on it up to the camera and announced the multimillion-pound deal. Their press release sounded friendly and harmonious: glitz made in Abu Dhabi, carefully controlled by PR experts.
The Arabian company did not respond to questions submitted by journalists with the EIC network.
The work of the business professionals wasn’t just limited to Manchester. In the last several years, Abu Dhabi has set up a branch office of its City franchise on almost every continent. Part 4 in this series will elucidate the strategy behind this global football empire and how the sister clubs are used for hidden payments and tax savings.
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