UAE exploits football to counter charges of human rights abuse
James M. Dorsey
Manchester City is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of the United Arab Emirates, which is perpetrating serial human rights abuses, HRW researcher Nicholas McGeehan told The Guardian. REUTERS PhotoThe recent sentencing in the United Arab Emirates of scores of dissidents on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and UAE support for the Egyptian coup has sparked assertions that the country is using its acquisition of Manchester City and other sporting ventures to polish an image increasingly tarnished by autocratic policies.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) told The Guardian that the UAE was using football to launder its image. Former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman has called for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the “fit and proper person test” for ownership of a Premier League club.
HRW, along with Amnesty International, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights and prominent human rights lawyers and activists like Sir Geoffrey Robertson, condemned the mass trial of 94 people, 69 of whom were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, as unfair and a violation of due process due to a denial of legal assistance amid allegations that prisoners were held incommunicado pretrial, tortured and denied any appeals. In its response, the UAE Justice Ministry did not implicitly rule out torture, arguing that alleged victims should have reported abuse to the police.
The defendants, who include lawyers, teachers and academics, were accused of being Muslim Brothers. Deeply hostile to the group, the UAE backed the military coup against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that has thrown Egypt into crisis and has since, together with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, bankrolled the military-appointed successor of the ousted president.
The backing was part of a larger Saudi-dominated effort to stymie the wave of protest and revolt that has been sweeping the Middle East and North Africa for more than two years. The brotherhood last week rejected a mediation attempt in Egypt by a senior U.S. official as well as the foreign ministers of the UAE and Qatar, the only Gulf state to back the group.
Describing the UAE as “a black hole” for basic human rights, HRW researcher Nicholas McGeehan told The Guardian that “In this situation, a Premier League club [Manchester City] is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses. That should be of concern to football supporters as well as human rights organizations.”
The paper quoted HRW as saying further that Abu Dhabi’s purchase of City enabled it to “construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country.”
The portrayal of acquisitions of prominent football clubs as an effort to launder a country’s reputation casts a shadow over a foreign and security policy, as well as a soft power strategy deployed by both the UAE and Qatar that is designed to endear themselves to a Western public and embed themselves in the international community in a way that would ensure support in times of need. Both countries recall the success of Kuwait, another small Gulf state incapable of defending itself, in rallying the international community in 1990 and 1991 to force the withdrawal of invading Iraqi forces.
The linking by human rights activists of the acquisition of Western football clubs to the human rights record of the home countries of a buyer is closely linked to the emergence of mega-events like the World Cup, which will be hosted by Qatar in 2022, as platforms for campaigns for human, labor and gender rights.
In addition to the World Cup, Qatar has bought Paris St. Germain, while its state-owned global broadcaster, Al Jazeera, has secured rights for the Premier League as well as the French and the Italian football competitions. The network has further launched a sports network in the United States and is about to launch a 24-hour U.S.-based news channel.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the UAE’s ruling family, bought City in 2008. The sheikh is UAE deputy prime minister and minister of presidential affairs, a brother of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Military Cmdr. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and a half-brother of UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. He is also responsible as chairman of the Abu Dhabi judiciary for the court that convicted the dissidents.
UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition of City as well as this year’s agreement to invest in the creation of a 20th Major League Soccer team in the U.S. was a personal rather than a government investment. Most analysts, however, given al-Nahyan’s grip on state affairs, take that assertion with a grain of salt.
Neither the UAE nor Qatar initially realized that the deployment of soft power using football would also entail that they would become more vulnerable to criticism of their adherence to human and other rights. So far, Qatar, despite foreign policy setbacks as a result of its backing of the brotherhood and other Islamist forces, has proven more adept in deflecting the criticism, particularly on the issue of the rights of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the population in both countries.
The Gulf state has until now been able to fend off demands by international trade unions that it allow the formation of independent workers’ organizations and endorse the principle of collective bargaining by taking far reaching steps to improve material working and living conditions. The Qatar Foundation, a state-owned body focused on education and research, has adopted rules that oblige contractors to pay a worker’s ticket to Qatar from his or her home country and give employees three weeks’ vacation a year. Qatar is also looking at an overhaul of the recruitment system that would shield workers from becoming indebted to agents who charge exorbitant fees. The UAE and other Gulf states have sought to reform their foreign labor system, but to a lesser extent than Qatar.