Abu Dhabi Finances Soccer; Gains Influence in New York City

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

NYCFC logoNew York City FC is looking for a permanent home. The club’s search for a stadium will eventually result in them entering a political process in which City Football Group, Abu Dhabi and their politics face scrutiny. Leaked emails released last week showed board members Simon Pearce and Marty Edelman discussing the impact the United Arab Emirates‘ record of human rights abuses could have on their efforts.

That record, according to Amnesty International, includes restrictions on political speech and expression, discrimination against women and the LGBT community, and the use of the kafala system to restrict the mobility of migrant workers.

The emirate has forged a partnership with cultural institutions in New York. It has partnered with New York University to open a campus in Abu Dhabi and opened a local branch of the Guggenheim Museum.

To discuss CFG and Abu Dhabi’s efforts and motives in New York, EoS spoke with Nick McGeehan who first posted the leaked emails. McGeehan studied the UAE while working with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and worked to protect workers rights in the UAE while with Mafiwasta.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

EoS: From the leaked emails and your knowledge and past research of Abu Dhabi, how image conscious are City Football Group and Abu Dhabi in regards toward their movement into the U.S. and Britain?

McGeehan: They get it in a way that others just don’t. They’re way ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the importance of smart, effective public relations. One of the guys there is named Simon Pearce and a couple of their other guys are all from Burson-Marstellar. I think that experience is obvious in everything they do and everything they have done. It was obvious in the way they took over Manchester City. They were very clever in the way they’ve done it and the professionalism with which they’ve done it. When you compare them to Qatar, who throws millions at public relations, but they don’t do it as effectively as Abu Dhabi.

EoS: What are the current connections of Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon al-Mubarek to the UAE and how involved are they with the situation involving Qatar?

NM: In my view, Mansour does not have much to do with NYCFC or Manchester City FC. I believe that that whole thing is an Abu Dhabi government venture and it is run by the man at the top, crown prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Mansour’s brother. The key people in both projects appear to be his key lieutenants so that’s Khaldoon al-Mubarek and Simon Pearce. This appears to be an inner circle who appear to be in charge of strategy and not just CFG strategy but Abu Dhabi strategy and by extension, United Arab Emirates strategy. They are in charge of decisions in the Yemen conflict and the UAE’s role in that, the UAE’s role in Libya and the various conflicts it’s involved in throughout the world. They’re the key guys and they clearly see these ventures as ventures through which you can establish power and influence in centers of power like New York and Manchester.

EoS: Abu Dhabi formed partnerships with NYU and the Guggenheim Museum, so outside of CFG what is the relationship like between the two cities?

NM: They do appear to have targeted New York as a city where they want to establish a base. They have the Abu Dhabi campus of NYU, the Guggenheim Museum branch in Abu Dhabi, I think both of these were mentioned in the leaks when Yousef al-Otaiba was saying to have a meeting with Bill de Blasio and they said to make a point of how much we’re contributing to the City. … The tie with New York seems to be the university, art gallery and sports team — cultural icons if you can call them that. NYCFC is an attempt to create a sporting institution but it serves as that pillar of soft power in a very influential city.

EoS: How does that compare with Manchester?

NM: Manchester is the second city in Britain and as British politics became more and more devolved, there was a move from the government to devolve power to cities outside of London and the Chancellor George Osborne called it the northern powerhouse. This was slightly after Abu Dhabi got involved so they were either very smart and saw that there was a possibility of establishing a center of influence there or they just got really lucky. Either way, they’re extremely well-established in Manchester and have forged strong connections with the city council, commercial relationships with the council and they’re developing property.

EoS: The idea of building not just a stadium but housing as well seems to fit Abu Dhabi

NM: I think so, in the U.K. we’re living in times of austerity where local councils are desperate for any sort of cash to balance the budget. When you have a sort of capital rich country who is willing to foot the bill for stuff and get assets on the cheap, they’re cleaning up. It’s fascinating what they’ve done in Chicago where they own all the traffic meters. Matt Taibbi talks about how Chicago sold off its parking meters for 90 years. It seems to be partly just a money-making venture, taking assets on the cheap from governments who are desperate for cash.

EoS: The club also formed City in the Community, which is leading a handful of community service initiatives along with MLS, the Abu Dhabi consulate and the mayor’s office as partners. How have you seen City and Abu Dhabi use community service, use football toward building a reputation and what is the end goal?

NM: It’s good PR, it presents them as being wholesome benefactors who are trying to contribute to the welfare of these communities. Particularly when kids are involved, it’s a fantastic photo op and it makes them look good. The other thing they’ve done is the investment in children’s hospitals in Washington and the U.K. You don’t want to denigrate that sort of thing, it’s great that they want to help kids but I don’t think people should be so naïve to see that it furthers their interests as well.

EoS: That seems to be the catch to it all. We’ve seen them build fields and contribute culturally in New York aware that this is to advance their interests at the end of the day, but we’re also aware of their record of abuses. So how should people try to square the two?

NM: They’re absolutely related. Successfully carrying out your foreign policy and developing these centers of influence is also part of your business policy because these guys are as much businessmen as they are statesmen. The foreign policy and business policy is almost intertwined. If you’re locking up, torturing and keeping people enslaved, if you are involved in the greatest humanitarian catastrophe currently ongoing, which is war in Yemen, then it’s important that these issues not be how you’re known and defined. You need something else to define your country, your image and the way to do that is throw millions at PR and to present yourself as something else and they do that incredibly effectively.

They hope people don’t care or don’t notice because they’d blame them for spinning tricks and smoke-and-mirrors. If they do notice, then it’s something happening far away and there’s nothing that we can do about that. It’s a challenge because when you’re that well-funded and that smart about how you spend your money, it’s difficult to push back against that. The genius of funding soccer is that you’re funding something that people are involved in because it’s not political because it’s an escape of the humdrum and the horrors and everything. That’s why people enjoy sport, to get away from all the crap. 

EoS: That may be why they believe they can be successful in New York. They’re forging a relationship with the mayor’s office even though the mayor holds progressive views on social issues, so that would naturally conflict. Other city officials are openly pining for a stadium as well. What would they have to keep in mind if they do want to form this strong relationship with Abu Dhabi?

NM: To them I would say look at what they’ve done, look at their records, the facts and who your proposed partners are. Don’t listen to the talking points that they’ve prepared for you, look at the facts as they’ve been established by credible groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. All the horrendous rights abuses that they’ve committed are well-established and well-documented. If you want to get involved with that government, that’s your choice. If you care about the reputation of the city, if you believe that the city has certain principles that are important to stand by then you should say no. Or, you can use that influence to try and push Abu Dhabi in the right direction but at that point, it’s not a New York City official’s job to stop human rights abuses in Abu Dhabi. 

EoS: How do you look at this matter in a way of determining whether you should support this team or not. How do you reckon with this rationally without the emotions that football can bring?

NM: What football fans have, whether they like it or not, is incredible power and influence and a voice if they choose to use it. The problem is that for the reasons I mentioned earlier that it’s very unlikely that a large mass of football fans would want to use that voice to push back against what is an unscrupulous, unethical or abusive owner. I’d love to see Manchester City and New York City fans holding up pictures of Ahmed Mansour who has been in jail for six months for nothing, that would be wonderful. At that point, it’s not slagging off the other team but it’s saying this is my team and I think my team stands for something. I don’t think that’s not showing your loyalty to your team, it’s the opposite. It’s saying I believe in this club and I hope it stands for more than that. It’s an unsatisfactory answer but it goes to back to my previous point that the genius of buying a football club is buying partisanship and zealotry.

EoS: It’s just the state of football, maybe looking at MLS and its decision to welcome this ownership. Is it blind capitalism from their eyes and their view this as moneymaking potential and a chance to establish themselves in the City, tough to weigh.

NM: Yeah, it is, but if it’s a battle then they’re winning.