Time for a Free Kick

The French and British governments seem to have been particularly susceptible in spite of the fact that Qatars sympathies with Islamist groups across the Middle East run directly in counter to Europe’s own foreign policy objectives.

Newcastle and Manchester United have a fierce historic rivalry in the Premier League and its precursor the old First Division, which makes any off-the-pitch union of their respective fans a welcome novelty. “We are Newcastle United and Manchester United fans standing together to call for an end to the sale of our historic clubs to states which use them to sportswash their human rights abuses”, read a joint statement in March of last year in condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle and the former-Prime and Foreign Minister of Qatar Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani’s (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to buy Manchester United.

Often the butt of the joke, these football fans seem to have a better understanding and are certainly braver in their condemnation of the buying up of British and European sport as a means of cementing diplomatic influence over the West. Saudi Arabia is a better-known quantity in this regard, particularly in Britain given close historic ties, but the average Brit or European will know much less about the influence of senior Qatari officials like Hamad Bin Jassim, or “HBJ”, in London, Paris, and Brussels. A powerful figure having run the Gulf state’s foreign policy (1992-2013) and served as Prime Minister (2007-2013), HBJ is recognized to have masterminded the Gulf state’s acceptance in, and indeed influence over, key Western states.

The French and British governments seem to have been particularly susceptible in spite of the fact that Qatars sympathies with Islamist groups across the Middle East run directly in counter to Europe’s own foreign policy objectives. This tension was made clear in an exposé by the Times which revealed that the Nusra Front, a jihadist group operating in Syria in partnership with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, had received “hundreds of millions of dollars” from Qatari individuals including HBJ.

The former-Prime Minister muddied the waters in the face of these allegations, saying that there was “maybe” a relationship between Qatar and Nusra but admitting that this was unacceptable. Clearly undeterred and with money for football as well as fighters, HBJ’s bid for Manchester United came just two years after the exposé was published. More dovish commentators have claimed that Manchester United’s eventual sale to Jim Ratcliffe of INEOS fame is evidence that the checks and balances were in place to stop another Premier League club from falling into the hands of a morally compromised foreign buyer. But that would plainly be wrong given it was Ratcliffe’s higher bid, not the dubious reputation and motivations of HBJ, that scuppered the latter’s planned takeover.

Further, it seems as if the Premier League and British government were satisfied by the ex- minister’s assurances that he would be buying the club in his capacity as a “wealthy individual”, rather than as a senior most official with worrying links to extremist groups who also played a central part in Qatar’s successful (but widely recognised as corrupt) scheme to land the 2022 FIFA World Cup. If the UK was spared from another sportswashing initiative only by the contents of INEOS’ fat pockets, then France has not been so lucky.

Paris Saint-German (PSG) was bought by Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) in 2011, a subsidiary of the state-run sovereign wealth fund chaired by the telegenic Nasser Al-Khelaifi and run by HBJ until 2013. Al-Khelaifi’s stock has risen considerably since 2011. He has shrugged off corruption charges over Qatar’s attempt to buy the rights to the 2017 World Athletics Championships for Doha, rising on the tide of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Qatar’s BeIN Sports has invested in the French Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League to become the chairman of the all-important European Club Association in 2019. PSG is seen within the football industry to have been poorly run by QSI – the mayors of three Paris suburbs rejected its plans to build an official stadium in their areas because of Qatar’s links with terrorist groups – but that’s only half the pointWhat’s so clearly at stake here is the expansion of the influence of a group of wealthy individuals whose values are seemingly inimical to those of the West. In this sense the current wave of sportswashing is the least of it.  

Figures like HBJ may have the capital to win friends in the capitals of Europe – and certainly in the executive suites of the continent’s sporting institutions – but politicians must not let that distract from their activities ‘off the pitch’, from terrorist financing to alliances with hostile powers like Iran. This is a sad state of affairs that Western governments should do everything within their diplomatic and economic means to reverse. Instead, there looks to be no meaningful state or institutional opposition in the UK or EU to such pervasive influence-peddling.

The fans will keep chanting, but it’s surely time for our governments to strengthen their resolve.

Dr Matthew Pajares-Yngson
Dr Matthew Pajares-Yngson
Datu Matthew Pajares Yngson is the Representative Councillor of the Caribbean ASEAN Council, and Diplomatic Affairs Envoy of the Eastern Caribbean-Southeast Asia Chamber, an organization recognized by the United Nations through the UN-OHRLLS. Datu Yngson holds a Doctorate in Professional Studies in International Relations and Diplomacy, and a Master of Arts in International Relations and Cultural Diplomacy. He is the only Filipino-Dominican alumnus of H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences since its establishment in 1956. Datu Yngson is also the Royal Ambassador of The 35th Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo and was bestowed the princely title of "Rajah of Tambulian Island" for his humanitarian work in supporting the Tausug people of the Sulu Archipelago.