As a former chess champion, Dr Sulaiman al Fahim knows something about planning several moves ahead. And as front man for the investment group taking control of the English football club Manchester City, Dr Fahim, one of the most flamboyant businessmen in the GCC, says his next move will be to use the acquisition to promote Abu Dhabi and the UAE. "We're making investments along the right track, which will boost the image of our country," he said in a telephone interview yesterday as the world of football responded first with shock and then mounting excitement to a deal that could propel a mid-ranking club from the shadows of its illustrious neighbour, Manchester United, into the ranks of leading clubs.
"In owning a club like Manchester City, it's about Abu Dhabi giving an image to the world - Abu Dhabi is making a global statement." Dr Fahim, whose day job is chief executive of the developer Hydra Properties, is the public face of a private equity group led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, a sport enthusiast and Minister of Presidential Affairs. Dr Fahim will represent the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG) on the board of Manchester City.
While reports in the British press have suggested that the Abu Dhabi Government has put up the money for the deal, Mr Fahim said investors were acting in a private capacity. But, as explained by Dr Fahim, their aim in buying the English club had as much to do with matters at home as it did with football affairs abroad. In that sense, the deal shares the goals - albeit on a far grander scale - of an agreement Hydra Properties and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council signed with the Italian football club Inter Milan earlier this year to build the Inter Milan football academy in Abu Dhabi.
"I'm looking at opportunities for UAE football players - they will have a chance to go and train with Manchester City and, if capable, play in the Premier League," he said. "Likewise with Inter Milan, players from the UAE will get the chance to train there." Of course, doing the right thing for the UAE and Abu Dhabi also means doing right by Manchester City fans. Just one day after the deal was clinched, the club pulled off an extraordinary coup in beating Chelsea to capture the Brazilian forward Robinho from Real Madrid for a British club record fee of about Dh264 million (US$70m). "In just two days we managed to get him - and this was after Chelsea had talked to him for three weeks," Dr Fahim said.
An audacious bid for the Tottenham Hotspur striker Dimitar Berbatov threatened at one point to snatch him from the clutches of Manchester United, forcing United to increase their own offer to avoid humiliation. Dr Fahim, 31, is no stranger to the media spotlight. He has built a high profile for himself, displaying talents for marketing and public relations. He formed Hydra Properties three years ago and the company now has more than Dh7.3 billion worth of projects under way in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, along with the Dh1.8 billion Hydra Waves project in Mexico.
He has earned a nickname as "the Donald Trump of Abu Dhabi" by hosting his own reality TV show Hydra Executives, an Arabic Version of Mr Trump's programme The Apprentice, in which contestants compete for a Dh3.6 million prize to invest in property. Dr Fahim is also in talks with the Trump Organisation about building a residential and hotel tower in the UAE. Along with Sheikh Mansour, he holds a belief in the ability of sport to transcend boundaries.
"Sport, whether it be football or something else, is something that is friendly and brings countries together," he said. Inevitably, the investment group's efforts will be perceived as a projection of Abu Dhabi. That could bring challenges as well as advantages, said Duncan James, a strategy director at The Brand Union Middle East. "Brand Abu Dhabi" depends on respect, and ADUG will need to keep this in mind in its dealings with Manchester City, he said.
"Abu Dhabi and Dubai firms are seen as being shrewd and as having a lot of respect and cultural understanding," he said. "And when entering a new market where passions and loyalties are high, you need to be very respectful, especially when investing in a football club, where the stakes are very high." firstname.lastname@example.org