The Middle East’s influence on European football has become increasingly more apparent in recent years. One can simply look to the growing strength of teams like Paris Saint-Germain Football Club (FC) and Manchester City FC, whose owners are from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ruling families respectively. Paris Saint-Germain won the French Ligue 1 for the third consecutive year in 2020 and reached this year’s edition of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League Final, a competition home to the most elite of European football clubs. Manchester City won the English Premier League in 2019 and have established a hegemony in English football with themselves battling rivals Liverpool FC for dominance. For countries with such a relatively low soccer profile, what then accounts for the rapid rise in influence of Qatari and UAE players in the game’s modern arena?
Gaining Soft Power and Increasing Influence
One reason these countries enter the footballing sector is to increase their soft power in Europe. They pump much needed funds into teams they invest in, which generally results in these teams buying higher quality players and getting better results on the pitch. By being associated with a newly successful team, ruling Gulf families hope to rid themselves of their damaging track record, which includes domestic human rights abuses and an extinguishing of free speech. These Gulf families end up pouring absurd amounts of money into the game, giving them high levels of leverage over almost every facet of European football.
One of the most infamous examples of the UAE’s power in the game is when Manchester City faced a two-year ban from the Champions League on the basis of breaching UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations (FPP). In particular, they were accused of overstating sponsorship deals. Allegedly, Manchester City owners funded much of the supposed sponsorship money they were supposed to be receiving from parties like Etihad Airways and then lied to UEFA (European soccer’s ruling body) about where Manchester City got their money from. For reasons which are still unclear, the ban was recently lifted — the only explanation given so far is that many of the major breaches of regulation were “time barred.” These events and a lack of an explanation for the overturning clearly show the overreaching power of cash-heavy Middle Eastern investors in European soccer. Many rules, such as FPP, may be bent for them in order to suit their needs.
European soccer is essentially a pawn for Arab Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Since these two particularly are locked in a devastating power struggle, it is no surprise that football finds itself involved in the power struggle as well. Before we discuss how Arab Gulf states use soccer against each other, let’s first explore the conflict’s origins.
Origins of the Conflict
To understand the rivalry, recall the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. This was a series of revolts which resulted in the ousting of leaders like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Note that many of these uprisings stemmed from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group who believes in the unification of the Middle East under a single Islamic State ruling by Sharia law. The ruling families of Saudi Arabia and the UAE viewed the Arab Spring as a threat to their authoritarian rule and their dominance in the region. Subsequently, they banned the Brotherhood and branded them as a terrorist organization. Qatar, on the other hand, saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to increase their geopolitical power. With Brotherhood-backed candidates winning elections in Tunisia and Egypt, Qatar saw them as the new dominating political force of the Middle East. Conveniently, the Brotherhood also happened to be banned in Qatar since 1999, and therefore they posed no threat within the country.
Qatar began to back candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing many of them to attain powerful positions. Mohamed Morsi was one such candidate from Egypt, who subsequently used his platform to criticize the repression of Brotherhood chapters in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar didn’t stop there however. Over the years, Doha has been known to house several Brotherhood affiliates, such as the terrorist group Hamas. Qatari news network Al Jazeera frequently portrays the Brotherhood in a good light throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Predictably, Saudi and Emirati families were not happy with Qatar’s actions. They viewed Qatar as an upstart in the region trying to take away the old power from Saudi and UAE hands. They withdrew all of their diplomats from Qatar and, in 2017, proceeded to form a five-country coalition against the Qataris. This resulted in all trade being shut off and flights being cancelled, further worsening the conflict.
Qatar’s World Cup Struggle
The most glaring example of this is Qatar’s efforts to undermine the Emiratis by using soccer in their bid to host the World Cup in 2022. The tournament is a symbol of the country’s growing power on the international stage. By hosting the World Cup, Qatar spearheads itself as “the face of the Arab World” to everyone else, which is naturally not something their Saudi neighbors are pleased with. For this reason, crippling Qatar’s World Cup in 2022 became a top priority for the ruling Saudi and Emirati families. The leaked emails of UAE United States Ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, show how concerning the matter was to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They included plans of diminishing Qatar’s show in 2022 along with convincing the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to share the tournament with the Saudis and the Emiratis.
Another dirty tactic aimed at undermining Qatar’s World Cup is the Saudi and UAE’s alleged anti-Doha propaganda. A popular tactic they are accused of is giving massive funds to think tanks, who proceed to return the favor by writing damning reports of Qatar’s handling of the 2022 World Cup preparations. Many such reports are published in popular news outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or Cable News Network (CNN). They target Qatar’s horrendous treatment of their migrant stadium construction workers. In addition, they question if Qatar’s right to host the tournament is legitimate or if corruption and bribery was involved. While much of this bad press is legitimate, it is important to be aware of the fact that many of these reports might have been fabricated as part of the Saudi and Emirati’s Cold War efforts.
The Failed Saudi Bid
A couple of months ago, a Saudi wealth fund led by Mohammed bin Salman, was in negotiations to buy Newcastle United FC. Many fans were ecstatic with the potential new owners, with the hope that new Saudi money could lure foreign stars over to their team. This led to protests from several human rights activists, citing the killing of Jamal Khashoggi as one of their reasons against the Saudi takeover. Most notably however, was Qatar’s involvement. The Premier league viewing rights in the Middle East are currently owned by beIn Media Group — an offshoot of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera. The viewing rights make up a deal of $500 million, the second largest overseas TV deal for the Premier League.
Saudi Arabia was accused by beIn of propping up the network beoutQ and helping them pirate Premier League and World Cup matches — games which beIn exclusively held rights to showing. The New York Times called this “the largest piracy operation in sports history.” To get back at the Saudis, beIn essentially snitched in a letter to all 20 Premier League teams along with the League’s chief executive, mentioning beoutQ’s piracy and how it traced back to the Saudis. The letter goes on to ask, “Why is this important? Not only has the potential acquirer of Newcastle United caused huge damage to your club’s and the Premier League’s commercial revenues, but the legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward.” Eventually, this bad press resulted in the Saudis withdrawing from their Newcastle bid, a massive win for the Qataris.
The sport we love is undeniably turning into a battleground for rich Middle East competitors. Personally, I am not really sure how I feel about this, but I just hope it doesn’t affect the game.