If the reports of Saudi Arabia wanting to buy Manchester United come at what is, politically, a highly sensitive time given the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the reality is that these are murmurs that have been doing the rounds for a few months.
And the Old Trafford club’s links to the kingdom go back even further.
Saudi Telecom are already United’s longest-standing commercial partner, while last year they agreed a separate “strategic partnership” with the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia. Different names, same pot of money.
All of these deals – as well as the proposed $25bn deal with Fifa for the Club World Cup and potential new Nations League – are part of the regime’s somewhat belated attempts to diversify into sport investments and away from oil, while accruing the soft power benefits of such purchases, following the lead of Qatar, most notably with Paris Saint-Germain, and allies UAE with Manchester City.
Given there is greater wealth in Saudi Arabia than both, it is surprising that it has taken this long to enter into this race. Figures familiar with the area say the centralisation of power around Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – the son of King Salman of Saudi Arabia – in a country where it has previously been very spread out has made such moves much easier. It is the Crown Prince who is claimed to be personally interested in bidding for the Glazer family’s private shares.
Purchasing a club like United would be such a clear and obvious part of that strategy. Purchasing United would meanwhile be an enormous coup, maybe the global jewel in football given that Real Madrid and Barcelona are socially ring-fenced because of their membership structures.
The attraction is obvious.
While no-one will go on record and say that there is definitive interest in the club from Saudi Arabia, many believe it has been considered.
If Saudi Arabia’s wider strategy is abundantly clear, however, the Glazers’ is not. Information doesn’t tend to leak from that family so easily and they maintain a tight inner circle.
United were not commenting on the reports, but neither were they commenting on their existing deals with the country, an interesting detail at a time when so many others having been willing to distance themselves given the Khashoggi story.
A pertinent point is that the links between club and kingdom are there that would facilitate any potential bid without the need for intermediaries that could see information leak.
It should be stressed that the majority of sources maintain that United are, officially, not for sale.
Why would they be when they continue to be such a highly rewarding investment for the Glazers? The latest reports showed a record income of £590m from selling sponsorships. The six Glazer siblings and their investors have meanwhile been paid around £65m in dividends over the last three years.
Other sources however believe that the American family have always had some exit strategy in mind. As far back as 2009, it was said that they were really waiting for the use of high-speed internet streaming to take hold, with a view to financially maximising Manchester United’s immense global popularity.
They are still waiting. Though the club’s website and app have already started such steps for pre-season friendly matches, the Premier League’s collective bargaining policy means it is so far off-limits for the games that really matter. It is also why the next few deals, as broadcasting mediums continue to diversify, could be interesting – and telling.
At the same time, while United may not officially be for sale, those same sources say that a bid of over $4bn would be sufficient to hugely test that position. It would represent a significant return on the Glazers’ investment, too.
It is a sum that Saudi Arabia can easily afford and it is why the story will not go away any time soon, even if little is likely to come of the most recent reports.
The tentative interest is there. The links are there.
Where it goes next remains to be seen.
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