Abu Dhabi accused of ‘using Manchester City to launder image’

Torture ‘a systematic practice’ in United Arab Emirates

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire


English football has allowed one of its major clubs to be exploited as a “branding vehicle” by an international regime accused of human rights abuses after a trial in Abu Dhabi - ruled by Manchester City’s owner and his brothers - according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Amnesty have vehemently protested against the mass arrest of 94 people, their alleged torture while in Abu Dhabi jails, a “fundamentally unfair” trial, and long prison sentences with no right of appeal handed down earlier this month to the 69 people convicted. Amnesty said the treatment of the 94 in the United Arab Emirates, where Sheikh Mansour al-Nahyan’s family, rulers of the richest emirate, Abu Dhabi, are dominant, “shows the authorities’ determination to crush any form of dissent”.

The 94 were tried on charges of plotting to overthrow the UAE government, which remains adamant this was proven against the 69 convicted. The regime, whose army and security services are headed by Sheikh Mansour’s brother, Sheikh Mohammed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, maintains the 69 were operating as a front for the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeking to impose a conservative Islamist state, including by military means. The defendants, who include lawyers, teachers and academics, say this was a crackdown by an increasingly authoritarian state, after they voiced valid criticisms of the regime, calling for more democracy and freedom of speech. Only a minority of the UAE population has any kind of vote, the ruling families have been in charge for centuries, and in 2013 it remains a crime to criticise the rulers, belong to a trade union or form any organisation not licensed by the regime.

Amnesty and HRW believe torture is “a systematic practice” in Abu Dhabi and UAE state security jails, and that complaints that these men were tortured, including to extract confessions, have not been investigated. Amnesty said the trial showed “a deeply flawed judicial system” at odds with the “global image the UAE likes to project of itself as an efficient, forward-thinking country, which in many ways it is”.

HRW made specific reference to Manchester City, arguing that ownership of the Premier League club is enabling Abu Dhabi to “construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country”.

Sheikh Mansour bought City in 2008, and has since spent around £1bn of the fortune he wields as a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, principally to buy and pay the multimillion-pound wages of footballers to make City successful. Mansour is among the most powerful group in Abu Dhabi with the crown prince Sheikh Mohammed and their other “full” brothers by Sheikha Fatima, one of the six wives married to the former ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Sheikh Khalifa, Zayed’s oldest son, one of Mansour’s half-brothers by a different wife, is the UAE president, said to be ailing in health. Mansour is the Abu Dhabi deputy prime minister, responsible for the country’s judges, and sits on the board of key investment funds.

Manchester City is run by Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the chairman, a senior Abu Dhabi government and business figure, who works principally for Sheikh Mohammed. Mubarak is the chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority, a strategic government body responsible for advising on Abu Dhabi’s international image. He was deputed from his duties for Sheikh Mohammed to run City shortly after Mansour bought the club, to shape a more dignified direction after the initial frenzy of media coverage which was all about money and considered detrimental by the Abu Dhabi establishment.

Mubarak has always emphasised that City is a private business acquisition by Sheikh Mansour, with Mubarak charged to make it profitable, worth more than the £1bn spent, in 10 years. The Premier League club, though, have unquestionably become the most prominent global projection of Abu Dhabi itself, sponsored by four state-owned companies: the airline Etihad, the telecommunications company Etisalat, the investment company Aabar and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. When David Silva, Sergio Agüero and Yaya Touré weave their patterns in the Etihad Stadium, the hoardings around the pitch beam “Visit Abu Dhabi, Travellers Welcome” to the 200 countries where Premier League football is viewed – a great global advert.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2009, Mubarak said of the running of City: “This is telling a lot to the world about how we are. It is showing the world … the true essence of … what Abu Dhabi is about. There is almost a personification of the values we hold as Abu Dhabi, with the values of the club and the values we would like to stick to.”

Nicholas McGeehan, UAE researcher for HRW, describes the country in the light of the recent trial as increasingly “a black hole” for many basic human rights: “In this situation, a Premier League club is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses,” he said. “That should be of concern to football supporters as well as human rights organisations.”