Arrival of Al-Fahim offers City chance to bridge gulf in class
Middle Eastlands was the name Manchester City fans had coined for their ground last night. Dreamland might have been more appropriate.
The purchase of Shaun Wright-Phillips had provided some hint that financial salvation might be on its way, with £800m of Thaksin Shinawatra's cash frozen in Thailand, but when it was revealed early yesterday that Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim, an Abu Dhabi entrepreneur representing a member of that state's royal family, was to buy 90 per cent of Thaksin's shareholding for a sum just short of £210m, the club's landscape changed, perhaps irrevocably.
The appeal of the Premier League's riches to the Arab world meant that Abu Dhabi was not the only Gulf state to have been moving to take over from Thaksin in recent weeks. There had been a number of offers, including one from another state which was "quite far down the line", according to sources. But Al-Fahim appears to have been the key constituent in the deal. Thaksin, his chief of staff Pairoj Piempongsant and their advisers were particularly impressed by him so the deal was concluded with him. Thaksin might not be the most popular man in Manchester but the last choice he was empowered to make is one that the fans may come to thank him for, since Abu Dhabi's wealth dwarfs that of all other Gulf states.
Al-Fahim is certainly the man several Premier League clubs would dearly have liked to have had on board. He has been approached about possible 10 to 25 per cent stakes in Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle United but discussions never took place. "Those possibilities have never gone anywhere," he said. "The only team and offer that grabbed my mind was Manchester City." The irony will not be lost on supporters of Liverpool that City have been represented in the deal by London-based equity firm PCP and senior partner Amanda Staveley, who has worked relentlessly in the last six months to secure the hand-over of the club from Tom Hicks and George Gillett to Dubai International Capital, a similar investment company from the United Arab Emirates.
Though City's executive chairman Garry Cook clearly maintained two weeks ago that Thaksin was determined to maintain a majority shareholding in the club, it is now clear that he was resigned to a full sale.
The deal, which delivers "all management rights" to Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, was concluded at the plush Abu Dhabi Emirates Place hotel where Thaksin met Al-Fahim on Sunday night. It removes Thaksin from any control at City, despite his continued status as board member and honorary chairman.
Al-Fahim insisted yesterday that he is not investing his own money but, to judge by the list of new players he has pursued, he appears to be the individual who will shape City's future while the royals – with their sovereign backed wealth, the safest form of debt guarantee available – remain in the background.
Al-Fahim, who expects to be in Manchester every other week and will meet Mark Hughes in London on Thursday, is certainly not one for the shadows himself . Aged 31, the new face of City is an individual with a penchant for the celebrity lifestyle, who was recently pictured in the company of Demi Moore, Charlie Sheen and others at a celebrity bash in Bel-Air. He was described by some in Abu Dhabi yesterday as a cross between Richard Branson and Donald Trump, but Branson and Alan Sugar seems more appropriate. He has enjoyed a starring role in his own Apprentice reality show which pitted two teams – one British, one American – against each other in property ventures for a $1m prize. A second series pitting Indians against Pakistanis airs in October.
Listed in Arabian Business Magazine's list of 100 most powerful Arabs a few years back, Al-Fahim started buying properties with his parents' money as a teenager and eventually founded the firm he leads, Hydra, which has built skyscrapers and golf complexes in the Gulf and has a five-star hotel on Mexico's Northern Pacific coast
Al-Fahim tried to make it as a footballer but fared better at chess, and was ranked at No 5 in the world at age nine. His football affinities have remained, though. He has taken his Hydra outfit into a joint venture with Internazionale which has seen the establishment of an Inter Football Academy in Abu Dhabi, with the aim of developing local talent. Al-Fahim has also ploughed money into the country's show jumping, chess and volleyball and he sponsored the UAE team at the Beijing Olympics. He and his backers appear to believe that the purchase of Manchester City will nurture a sporting culture in a nation which made one World Cup appearance, in 1990, and – at 104th in the world – is lurking around its lowest Fifa ranking .
There was something faintly touching about the investment company's attempts to demonstrate an affinity yesterday for a football club they clearly know little of. "It is noteworthy that the Manchester City Club was founded in 1880 under the name of St Marks, which was changed to Ardwick AFC in 1887," said its statement. "The Sixties and the Seventies might be the golden age ... with the team coached by Joe Mercer and with the assistance of Mr Malcolm Allison." But it is the riches of the Premier League which are the draw – the investors quoted its $3bn (£1.6bn) revenues – and though the recent history of foreign investment in the British game is littered with hollow promises there is at least some hope that the new owner will take a longer view than the last. "The culture out there is about family and generations," said one City source in London yesterday. "They think longer and that might make all the difference."
City's royal family: The Abu Dhabi interests behind £210m takeover
The Al-Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi are the key to Manchester City's new place in British football. A single member of the family has provided the finance, which has been channelled by their representative, Sulaiman Al-Fahim, into the £210m takeover.
The ruler of the Middle East state, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, is said to be worth £13.3bn, some £2bn more than Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich.
Al-Fahim is clearly the figurehead and he alone will stage intitial discussions with City's manager, Mark Hughes, but the Al-Nahyans are expected to be a part of things at Eastlands as their ownership develops. They will not travel to Manchester during Ramadan, but are expected to do so soon afterwards.
The family are not entirely publicity-shy. One of their number has been reported to be dating the actress Pamela Anderson, though it is unclear which. (She allegedly calls him the "Milk-Sheik" or "Milk" for short).
The purchase of City is the latest attempt by Abu Dhabi to move into global business.
The government's investment vehicle, Mubadala, recently announced a joint venture with General Electric and has also bought a stake in Ferrari. Another company, part-owned by the Abu Dhabi operation recently bought a stake in the North Sea oilfields from Shell and Exxon Mobil.
Not all investments have been successful. There has been concern about the way that the UAE's Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has invested billions of dollars into banks stricken by the US subprime mortgage crisis. But it is anticipated that investment in Western companies will continue as Abu Dhabi continues to bask in the benefits of high oil prices as one of the world's largest crude oil exporters.