UK ministers welcome Qatari bid for Manchester United
Senior government figures say Middle East investment should be embraced.
LONDON — U.K. government figures say they would privately welcome Qatari investment into Manchester United, as the club’s owners consider a £4 billion bid from a member of the Middle East state’s ruling class.
A senior U.K. trade envoy told POLITICO that Britain should “absolutely be embracing foreign investment into this country from the Middle East, whether it’s in football or green energy,” when asked about the potential sale of one of the world’s most famous football clubs into Qatari ownership.
Another key U.K. government figure, a minister with a close interest in the proposed deal, said the bid by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani — the chairman of the Qatari Islamic Bank — would be “good investment” if it came with assurances that the wider community would benefit.
Both senior figures were speaking on condition of anonymity. An official from the Department for Business and Trade said the U.K. government was not actively involved in Manchester United’s potential sale and that the department has “no view at all” on Qatar’s bid.
The U.K. government has come under recent criticism for its efforts to expand economic ties with Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries accused of human rights abuses. A member of its trade department tried to help facilitate the sale of Newcastle United to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in 2021, according to documents leaked last year.
Al-Thani’s representatives met with Manchester United ownership at Old Trafford Wednesday, with the Qatari now considered the favorite to complete the purchase over rival bidder Jim Ratcliffe. The American Glazer family are looking to sell the club after 18 years of majority ownership.
Al-Thani has claimed there is no involvement from the country’s sovereign wealth fund or government in his bid, though observers have expressed skepticism about its true independence from the small but ultra-wealthy Qatari state.
A person close to the sheikh’s bid said they were "confident" there would be no U.K. government interference if the bid is successful, and pointed out that "Qatar is a close ally of the U.K."
"Sheikh Jassim wouldn’t put himself out there if he didn’t think the bid would be successful," they added.
Human rights groups have said the attempted Qatari purchase of one of Britain’s most recognized cultural assets is an example of “sportswashing” — an attempt to improve national or corporate reputations by engaging in top-level sport — and that it should be blocked by English football authorities.
Qatar has been widely condemned for its workers’ rights record, most recently in the lead-up to last year’s football World Cup, and for its treatment of women and the LGBTQ+ community. Qatar is also at the center of a major EU corruption scandal involving suitcases full of cash seized by police.
Peter Frankental, Amnesty International U.K.’s economic affairs director, warned that “foreign investment in the U.K. shouldn’t come at any cost,” and said the U.K. government “ought to share our concerns” over human rights.
“Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup was an enormous exercise in attempting to deflect attention from the country’s systematic exploitation of migrant workers, its disgraceful anti-LGBTQ+ laws and the unacceptable limits placed on freedom of speech and women’s rights,” he said.
Fit and proper?
One potential barrier to the sale appeared last month when the U.K. government announced plans for an independent football regulator to test the fitness of club owners and the financial stability of professional clubs.
It followed a review into English football governorship after six Premier League clubs tried to join a proposed European Super League competition in 2021.
But the senior U.K. trade envoy quoted above said the strategy was never intended to stop clubs being sold to investment vehicles backed by foreign countries.
“The white paper won’t see any foreign investment into football blocked. I’m very sure about that,” they said. “It’s not about blocking investment, it’s about ensuring financial sustainability and best practices for clubs.”
Looking to the Gulf
Indeed, the U.K. government has actively tried to deepen economic ties post-Brexit with the six countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council trading bloc — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait.
Investment deals have been brokered with Qatari and UAE sovereign wealth funds worth tens of billions of pounds, and the U.K. is currently negotiating a collective trade deal with the six gulf countries.
One Tory MP, a former U.K. trade minister, waved away concerns about Middle Eastern money coming into English football, and said most fans welcome this kind of investment.
“When Newcastle was bought by Saudi Arabia, what I remember seeing was Newcastle fans wearing towels around their heads and celebrating outside the stadium,” the MP said.