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3 September 2008

City's Arabs want promotion - for themselves

There are all sorts of ways of making a name for yourself, but, within the bounds of the law, few are more effective than buying an English football club. Who had heard of Roman Abramovich before he bought Chelsea, the Glazers before they snapped up Manchester United? Within hours of the latest takeover, the world is a lot wiser about Dr Sulaiman al-Fahim and his hopes for Abu Dhabi.
About £200 million, and rising, is a lot to spend on self-promotion, but how better to guarantee headlines from Manchester to Madras than buying a football club and then launching raids for the world's greatest players? Asked why yesterday - why England, why the Barclays Premier League, why City? - al-Fahim cut to the point: “Big exposure for the group and for the city [Abu Dhabi].”
He told The Times: “We want to create Abu Dhabi as the capital of sport and culture in the Middle East, to attract all the important events.”
Chess is his passion (he heads the Abu Dhabi federation), but do not underestimate the scale of his ambition. To become the sporting centre of the region, Abu Dhabi must keep pace with Dubai, its neighbouring emirate, which is putting together a £2 billion “Sports City” to host top football, cricket and, perhaps, the Olympic Games. Those aspirations will have been fired by the global exposure enjoyed by Beijing last month.
Now there are TWO ways to feed your fantasy

This is where we are at. Less than 20 years after Michael Knighton failed to scrape together the £20 million to buy Manchester United and the national game was blighted by hooliganism and atrocious stadiums, English football clubs are a prized part of the business portfolio for Russians, Americans, Arabs and, no doubt before long, the Chinese.
English clubs are investment opportunities for those seeking to make themselves even richer (the Glazers, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr), those who want the ultimate executive toy (Abramovich), or men seeking to sell themselves as munificent benefactors. City have had two of the last in Thaksin Shinawatra and now al-Fahim.
Pursued by charges of corruption, and worse, Thaksin never convinced the British public. Some of the muck stuck to him and there were alarming stories in recent weeks of him running out of ready cash. That seems highly unlikely in the case of the Abu Dhabi United Group, whose investors include the al-Nahyan royal family of the United Arab Emirates, for whom al-Fahim is going to prove an entertaining front man.
Happy to interrupt a busy day of shifting billions for a chat on the phone yesterday, he took the opportunity to plug his television show, a Middle Eastern equivalent of The Apprentice, in which he is the tough-talking Sir Alan Sugar. The trailer shows him cruising around in a garish, yellow Lamborghini, intercut with shots of Western destinations such as Harrods and Hollywood. He is going to enjoy rubbing shoulders with the famous footballers he attracts to City.
Yesterday he willingly entered into speculation about who would be the next big-money arrival. “My favourite footballer? That is Ronaldinho,” he said. “Hopefully, we can bring him to Manchester.”
Then there was Cristiano Ronaldo, for whom he said that he is willing to break every transfer record by spending £135 million. “We have not bought the club just to sit on it,” he said.
Such excitable talk suggests that Mark Hughes may be manager of the team in name only, although al-Fahim was insistent yesterday that Hughes would have a significant say on purchases. Sorry to be cynical, but Abramovich's advisers said something similar.
Whether watching the football brings as much pleasure as hogging the headlines remains to be seen, with al-Fahim unable to guarantee that he would attend more than once a month. He will start with the home fixture a week on Saturday against Chelsea.
Whether he knows his Arshavins from his elbow is questionable, but a deep knowledge of football has never been a requirement of ownership, even in the days when it was local English businessmen who ran the boardroom.
Yesterday al-Fahim ticked off all the usual clich├ęs - “the Premier League is the best in the world”, “Manchester City has a proud history”, “we want the fans to touch the trophy again” - but he and his fellow investors have not bought for long-term fulfilment, but for immediate impact. Patience may be in short supply, in inverse proportion to the splurging on brilliant Brazilians.