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Football's Middle Eastern revolution

  • Story Highlights
  • Two new Arab investors look to buy Liverpool and Chelsea
  • They're the latest businessmen to look at buying a Premier League club
  • The region has pumped millions of dollars into the game in recent years
  • UEFA boss Platini is wary of foreign owners. What do you think? Have your say
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By James Montague
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Mega-rich Middle Eastern investors are the latest wave of businessmen being linked with some of the biggest clubs in English soccer.

A joke 500 billion pound note bears the Manchester City crest and the face of Sulaiman Al Fahim.

Sulaiman Al Fahim eyes Chelsea, while Liverpool's fans also see a change of ownership looming.

They follow an influx of 'foreign' owners led by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, and Americans at Manchester United and Liverpool.

Sheikh Mansour, a member of the oil-rich Abu Dhabi royal family, has transformed the financial fortunes of Manchester City -- a team long in the shadow of its more successful neighbor United -- since buying the club last summer.

He bought Brazilian Robinho for a record £32.5 million ($45 million) at the start of the season, has spent millions more on players in the January 2009 transfer window and had a bid to sign Kaka, a former World Player of the Year, for a record-busting £100 million ($138 million) fail.

At the weekend British newspapers suggested that two of the Premier League's "Big Four" are attracting the attention of wealthy Gulf investors.

Not for the first time, the Kuwaiti Al Kharafi family was linked with Liverpool FC, currently owned by Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Meanwhile, Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, an Emirates property mogul and TV personality, is fronting an audacious bid to buy a controlling interest in Chelsea from Abramovich.

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Jassim al Kharafi has shot down speculation that his family is interested in buying Liverpool.

The Kharafis, who made much of their estimated $9.7 billion fortune in construction and fast-food interests, have been in talks with Liverpool before.

They considered a bid last year after the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, abandoned his efforts to buy the club.

But that may not be the end of the story. Some analysts think potential suitors are biding their time, as Liverpool's current American owners approach the deadline for refinancing their takeover of the club. That would mean renegotiating the terms of a whopping £350 million ($550 million) loan by July.

Most analysts think it highly unlikely in the current economic climate that the banks will want to refinance the loan. So if the Kharafi family denies interest in the club, that may be an act of brinkmanship to drive down the price as the July deadline looms.

Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, on the other hand, has already successfully overseen one takeover.

He came to the public's attentions after fronting the Abu Dhabi United Group's bid for Manchester City, only to be removed when he made several audacious claims concerning City's future transfer policy.

Now he's back, fronting a collection of investors who want to get their hands on Chelsea FC.

"It's not entirely clear if Chelsea is for sale, but regardless of that, we first need to see if we are in a position to buy it," Al Fahim told Arabian Business.com. "Given that Roman Abramovich has invested over £500 million ($694 million) into the club, it would not be cheap...but through a number of investors, there is money available to put together a deal."

The moves highlight just how important money from the region has become. Manchester City has already smashed the British transfer record after signing Robinho and paid what many think are generous fees for other players during a slow transfer window.

Middle Eastern investors have been offered the chance to buy anyone from Newcastle United, who are enduring a poor season in the Premiership, to Charlton Athletic, struggling in the second tier of English football.

Companies based in the Gulf have been involved in huge sponsorship deals, like the Dubai-owned Emirates Airline who gave Arsenal £100 million for naming rights for their stadium.

Not everyone is happy however. UEFA president Michael Platini has criticized the influx of foreign owners into the Barclays Premier League, claiming that clubs are losing touch with their roots as a result.

"Do you want in Liverpool an Arab sheikh as president with one Brazilian coach and nine or eleven African players?" Platini said at a news conference last October. "Where is Liverpool in that? We have to make some rules." Is Platini right? Have your say.

With half a dozen Premier League clubs known to be up for sale, and Arab investors looking like the only ones willing to do the buying, Kharafi and Fahim won't be the last names the footballing world hears from the Middle East.

What do you think? Is Platini right to be wary of foreign owners? Is the Premier League becoming too dependent on Middle Eastern money? Or is the influx of money and big names a refreshing shot in the arm for European football? Have your say.

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