The recent sentencing in the United Arab Emirates of scores of dissidents on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and UAE support for the military coup that ousted president Mohammed Morsi have sparked assertions that the country is using its acquisition of Manchester City and a franchise to establish a New York-based Major League Football team to polish an image increasingly tarnished by autocratic and counterrevolutionary policies.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in statements to the Guardian warned that the UAE was using football to launder its image. Former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman has called for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the “fit and proper person test” for ownership of a Premier League club.
HRW along with Amnesty International, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights and prominent human rights lawyers and activists like Sir Geoffrey Robertson condemned the mass trial of 94 people of which 69 were sentenced to lengthy prison terms as unfair and a violation of due process because a denial of legal assistance while being held incommunicado pretrial, allegations of torture and the lack of a right to appeal. In its response, the UAE justice ministry implicitly did not rule out torture, arguing that alleged victims should have reported abuse to the police.
HRW researcher Nicholas McGeehan, describing the UAE as “a black hole” for basic human rights, told the Guardian: “In this situation, a Premier League club [Manchester City] is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses. That should be of concern to football supporters as well as human rights organisations.”
The paper quoted HRW as saying that Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City enabled it to “construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country.”
The linking by human rights activists of the acquisition of western football clubs to the human rights record of the home countries of a buyer is closely linked to the emergence of mega-events, like the World Cup to be hosted by Qatar in 2022, as platforms for campaigns for human, labor and gender rights.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, a member of the UAE’s ruling family, bought Manchester City in 2008. The sheikh is UAE deputy prime minister and minister of presidential affairs, a brother of Abu Dhabi crown prince and deputy supreme military commander Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and a half-brother of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. He is also responsible as chairman of the Abu Dhabi judiciary for the court that convicted the dissidents.
UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition of Manchester City as well as this year’s agreement to invest in the creation of a twentieth Major League Football team was a personal rather than a government investment. Most analysts however, given Al-Nahyan’s grip on state affairs, take that assertion with a grain of salt. Neither the UAE nor Qatar initially realised that the deployment of soft power using football would also entail that they would become more vulnerable to criticism of their adherence to human and other rights. So far, Qatar, despite foreign policy setbacks as a result of its backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces, has proven more adept in deflecting the criticism, particularly on the issue of the rights of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the population in both countries.
The Gulf state has, until now, been able to fend off demands by international trade unions that it allow the formation of independent workers’ organisations and endorse the principle of collective bargaining by taking far reaching steps to improve material working and living conditions.
The Qatar Foundation, a state-owned body focused on education and research, has adopted rules that oblige contractors to pay a worker’s ticket to Qatar from his or her home country and give employees three weeks’ vacation a year. Qatar is also looking at an overhaul of the recruitment system that would shield workers from becoming indebted to agents who charge exorbitant fees. The UAE and other Gulf states have sought to reform their foreign labor system, but to a lesser extent than Qatar.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.