Thursday, 6th June 2019

UAE/Region: Sheikh Khalid goes to Newcastle

The British press has been engaged in feverish speculation about the precise identity and wealth of an Al-Nahyan sheikh ever since tabloid daily The Sun broke the news on 26 May that Newcastle United owner and retailing magnate Mike Ashley had agreed to sell the Premier League football club to Sheikh Khaled Bin Zayed Bin Saqr for £350m. The ‘red-top’ labelled Khaled as a “Dubai-based billionaire… among the most successful entrepreneurs in the Gulf states”. Another tabloid, The Mirror, speculated that, although his personal wealth was unknown, “his family is thought to be worth around £150bn”. This figure was then repeated by other news outlets. Khaled was quickly identified as a cousin (actually a second cousin) of Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, although The Sun conceded he was “not quite as rich” as the Manchester City owner.

Football fans have become used to wealthy investors stepping in to buy high-profile clubs, with mixed results reflected in glittering prizes and crushing relegations. Domestic triple winners Manchester City have quickly evolved into a global franchise, promoting Abu Dhabi at every turn, even if Sheikh Mansour never attends a match. Other rich Gulfis have foundered in football’s often illogical business environment. Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdelaziz bought into historic Sheffield United, but what should have been a success story – ‘The Blades’ have just been promoted to the Premiership – has ended in the High Court, which has been hearing evidence in a battle for control of the club between the Saudi prince and his estranged co-owner, Yorkshire businessman Kevin McCabe.

Sheikh Khaled was previously linked to a possible deal last year to buy Liverpool FC. That deal never progressed and there are doubts about the Newcastle ‘bid’. The Sun presented the situation as a done deal, but other outlets – not least Newcastle’s local paper The Chronicle – were more sceptical. Sources at the club’s iconic home, St James’ Park, have remained resolutely silent on the matter. That has not stopped other media from getting involved in the speculation. The Telegraph said neither of the two groups already known to be interested in a takeover of ‘The Magpies’ – who have been up for sale since 2017 – were involved with Khaled and were surprised at the news of his apparent takeover. The Daily Mail warned fans (who have been drawing up shopping list of players for manager Raphael Benitez) not to get too excited. It noted growing cynicism and reported that Khaled had not yet provided proof he had sufficient funds.

In late May, a business manager at Khalid’s Bin Zayed Group (BZG) confirmed in a statement that “the representatives of Sheikh Khaled… are in discussion with Mike Ashley and his team about the proposed acquisition of Newcastle United Football Club”. More recently, BZG reassured The Chronicle that it was in the Premier League “processes”. These can take ten to 15 days and things were on track, it said.

Meanwhile, pundits have been left to speculate about the mysterious Dubai-based sheikh. Talksport.com on 29 May quoted correspondent Craig Hope as saying “we were told by sources around Manchester City that in fact there was no relation between Sheikh Khaled and Sheikh Mansour. Why is that important? Because it’s long since been claimed by Sheikh Khaled and his representative that his are related to Sheikh Mansour, so it’s almost like they’re using that as a vehicle for authenticity.”

According to GSN’s records, Khaled belongs to an Al-Nahyan branch who were exiled to Dubai in the 1920s and remain quite distant from Abu Dhabi’s rulers. His grandfather, Saqr Bin Zayed, ruled Abu Dhabi in 1926-28 after killing his half-brother Sultan (supposedly by shooting him in the back) in July 1926. This was a difficult period in Al-Nahyan history; Saqr (whose mother was from Dubai’s Al Bu Falasa) was killed in January 1928 by associates of the late Sultan’s sons. After Saqr’s death his sons were banished from Abu Dhabi and went to live with their maternal relatives in Dubai; they also spent some time in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Shakbut (ruled 1928-66) ordered that none of Saqr’s sons could marry back into the main Al-Nahyan line. Shakbut was also said to have banned the use of Saqr as a name in the family. However, Saqr’s sons did not give up; on occasion they joined up with Abu Dhabi’s historic rivals to create trouble for the Al-Nahyan family’s main branch. In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia co-opted some of the Saqr sons to instigate a coup against Shakbut, which failed. Tensions are still thought to exist: one report dating back some years suggested the Abu Dhabi contingent of Al-Nahyans were angry about some of the Dubai-based family members using the title ‘His Highness’. (As members of a less powerful branch they should use ‘His Excellency’.)

Khalid’s business dealings appear to fit into a typical mould. Based in Dubai, BZG is involved in construction, contracting, real estate, financial services and insurance. Whether the group or Khaled himself have sufficient resources to buy out Ashley and then fund Newcastle so it can compete effectively with the likes of Manchester City remains an open question.

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