Manchester City vs PSG: A Geopolitical Game?
23 avril 2021
Interview with Raphaël Le Magoariec, PhD candidate, geopolitologist within the Arab and Mediterranean World Team (EMAM) at the University of Tours; Middle Eastern specialist, his work focuses on the societies of the Arabian Peninsula and sport, he is interested in the geopolitical depth of sport in this region, his research covers more particularly the place of sport in the politics of these States and within their societies. Conducted by Carole Gomez, Senior Research Fellow
From a geopolitical perspective, why are Manchester City vs. Paris Saint-Germain games interesting?
In reality, on paper, this match is only geopolitical in respect of the actors who own these two clubs – Abu Dhabi United Group for Man City and Qatar Sports Investments for PSG – and the way in which the emirate of Abu Dhabi and Qatar structure these clubs as channels for their foreign policy. In their respective systems, they shape these clubs as proxies of influence, but also as instruments of image that aim to occupy the media field by producing a controlled communication. The geopolitical dimension of this match is limited to this level.
From a European perspective, when it comes to this kind of games between clubs owned by Gulf sovereign wealth funds, which is rare, the geopolitical nature of these football matches tends to be overestimated. In reality, Gulf geopolitics does not take place on the football field in Europe. These clubs are not thought of as regional but global policy tools, they are not conceived as key elements of any “nationalist” narrative. I would say that these clubs are in fact political tools with a non-political image. These internal oppositions in the Gulf only spill over into the Gulf sports stage during matches between major local clubs or during matches between « enemy » national teams, but this only happens when there is a context of crises – such as in June 2017, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia Bahrain and Egypt announced a boycott of Qatar until further notice, relations resumed in January 2021 – which is quite new in the Arabian Peninsula. For example, during this period, the Qatari club Al-Rayyan SC, which is due to play against Abu Dhabi’s Al-Ain FC in the Asian Champions League (these clubs are two major clubs in these emirates) Al-Rayyan SC will never be mentioned in the pre-match communication, hence reflecting the desire of the emirate of Abu Dhabi to wipe Qatar off the map, as the authorities had done at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. In the history of football in these emirates, these clubs were founded as relays of power at the local scale and are part of the geopolitical narrative.
Indeed, one may wonder about the real interest that these emirates would find in transcribing their internal oppositions in their regional geographical area, tensions that are sometimes ancient and have their origins in the relations between ruling families, to a public that does not have the enough background knowledge to be able to fully understand. They have no real interest in using their club for internal Gulf politics, it must be understood that these clubs integrate the politics of these emirates as brands that constitute seduction tools designed for a global audience.
All the more so because the players of these teams, apart from the owner who pays them, have no connection with the geographical area in question. Moreover, juicy contracts signed with brands could be put at risk. Far from the geopolitical nature, the actual game will be the main interest of this match.
But let’s imagine that one of these clubs wins the Champions League, then the image of this victory would reinforce the symbolic weight of their geopolitical channels.
How can we compare Abu Dhabi and Qatar in terms of sport diplomacy?
In the Gulf, these two emirates have the most similarities in terms of their geopolitical profile but also in the way they invest in the world sports stage. Relying on a broad economic base derived from the hydrocarbon industry – oil resources for the emirate of Abu Dhabi and gas resources for the emirate of Qatar — they invest in sport as a relay of their power. In order to be able to develop this policy, high-level infrastructures are developed on their territory and they integrate European football by buying clubs.
There is a similarity in the forms that these global sports investments take as part of their foreign policy, but we can also see differences when we examine the way in which this policy is implemented.
On the Qatari side, this policy is broader, there is a real desire to be influential with many actors on the sports stage, from the creation of BeIn Sport as a financial channel to establish its power in places of sport power to the Aspire Zone district in the conurbation of Doha, which is asserting itself as a place of seduction for the institutions of world sport, indeed the structure seen from the inside leaves few people indifferent, so impressive is it, to PSG as a place to project its influence, a club that is becoming an essential mechanism in the wheel of Qatari power. The aim is about gain dominance on the world sports stage to make it a tool for its power.
On the Abu Dhabi side, the investment in sport is less extensive. The emirate does not seek to attract and dominate the major sporting institutions as much, hence we can say that it does not define itself as world sport hub, unlike Qatar. The development of a world-class sports policy came about at the end of the 2000s in Abu Dhabi, which developed the willingness to become a global actor and to control its visibility, which is very important in Abu Dhabi’s strategy. From a geopolitical point of view, what distinguishes this policy from the policy developed by Qatar lies in its policy of network of influence which is deployed from the F1 circuit of Yas Marina in the emirate of Abu Dhabi to the City Football Group.
When describing Abu Dhabi’s strategy, I think that the notion of network is very important as there exists a strong will to redefining its economic policy. Following the example of the City Football Group, there is a desire to build a network that offers the emirate the possibility of to implement its economic diversification policy on a global scale. The presence of key personalities from the emirate of Abu Dhabi at the heart of the City football group project, among them Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, bears witness to this twofold link between sport and business. Coming from a major family of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, close to the ruling regime, and to the crown prince, Al-Mubarak is also a member of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council and the president of the Executive Affairs Authority. He leads one of the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala Investment Company, which is central in the reflection of his global strategy. Indeed, behind the « tale of the beautiful game » told through the development of the City Football Group’s global network around the brand and the parent club of Manchester City, it is above all the policy of the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala which is asserting behind this holding company – City Football Group – that is developing in football world. Sports investment thus appears to play a key role in relaying the political ambitions of the emirate on the international stage and in strengthening its dominance over the UAE federation.
What could be potential consequences of the Super League project on those sport diplomacies?
The announcement of this project, although it seems to be stillborn, for the moment at least, shows the difference between Abu Dhabi and Doha in the ways in which they perceive their investment in sport. Indeed, Manchester City was in the project before withdrawing under pressure, PSG was not.
In Qatar’s strategy, this project was counterproductive and risky for its policy developed over more than a decade, as it would have meant breaking with the established order, which would have undermined its work of attracting international sports federations. Moreover, sport is not perceived as an area of enrichment for Qatar, and this project represented little interest for an emirate seeking power through the use of the sports stage.
For Manchester City, it’s a bit different because, as I was explaining in the last question, Abu Dhabi doesn’t want to seduce global sports actors neither to integrate sport into an economic goal, but they run a policy of developing a network serving the interests of the emirate on a global scale, this project could be seen as a strong element to accentuate their policy on this scale, to be left out of this league could have weakened the policy. In any case, this league idea is risky for actors who may already be perceived as cut off from the social fabric of the club and national football, this league would force an arbitrage between the local and the global.
Clubs which joined the Super League project found themselves in a difficult position. More globally, for the Gulf countries making world sport a space for the manufacture of their power is to integrate a balancing act, a hazardous game of power and competition.
This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.