At first glance, the Champions League semifinal between Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City on Wednesday promises to be a footballing treat. With Kylian Mbappe and Neymar on PSG’s side and Kevin De Bryune and Ilkay Gündogan on City’s, it features four of the world’s most gifted players. But this game is about more than deft dribbles, perceptive passes and great goals. The geopolitical dimension should not be underestimated.
Back in early January, politicians from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an intergovernmental association of several states in the region, signed an agreement to end mutual hostilities. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman publicly embraced Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the tarmac at Al-‘Ula in Saudi Arabia. The so-called Qatar blockade was over. Previously, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had blocked all land, sea and air links to Qatar for three-and-a-half years because the emirate — in the eyes of its opponents — maintained too close contact with its arch-enemy, Iran, and supported radical organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abu Dhabi follow Dubai’s example
But what does all that have to do with football? Well, two of the parties involved will now take their place in the Champions League semifinals. Abu Dhabi took control of Manchester City in 2008 and Qatar took over Paris Saint-Germain three years later.
“In terms of the Gulf states, this is a process that started at the beginning of the millennium, and it did involve UAE and Qatar, being the most ambitious ones, said James Montague, who covers football in the Middle East for various international media outlets. “In the beginning, Dubai was particularly good at making investments into sports and using them for political purposes. Then you have the financial crash in 2008 and Dubai, which doesn’t have any natural resources, was bailed out by Abu Dhabi.”
Abu Dhabi, he said, then used Dubai’s blueprint, took over Manchester City and, thanks to almost inexhaustible resources, took them to the top of the English game. Qatar, which was already active in a number of sports, then wanted to make its mark in football and therefore bought a majority stake in PSG from the US investment firm Colony Capital.
Qatar and Abu Dhabi clearly agree on one thing: they see the clubs, above all, as an “an extension of the country”, as Montague put it.
On Wednesday evening, the two teams will meet for the first time since the Qatar blockade. Abu Dhabi has long been the driving force behind the move and has yet to resume diplomatic relations with Doha, despite signing the agreement. The ideological clashes between Abu Dhabi’s leadership and Qatar’s ruling house Al Thani have grown in intensity over the years and the rifts cannot simply be glossed over. Abu Dhabi wants to continue to put Qatar in its place.
“The tensions likely outlive the warmth engendered by those televised hugs,” Middle East researcher Mustafa Menshawy of Lancaster University told DW.”The demands made by the other Gulf states of Qatar remain unmet. For example, Qatar has already scotched a demand to reduce its ties with Iran.”
Competition between the Emirates
Mbappe or De Bruyne may have other things on their minds on Wednesday night than the geopolitical tangle in the Gulf. But the owners of their teams have entered football with similar motives. Above all else, Qatar and Abu Dhabi want to use the prestige of the sport to enhance their own image. The UAE in particular has become even more autocratic since the Arab Spring, but tries to radiate a certain cosmopolitanism to the outside world, sport can help in this aim. This is a strategy is commonly known as “sportswashing“.
In addition, both emirates want to show who is the more potent of the two. Despite billions of dollars invested in the teams, the big success on the European stage has so far failed to materialise. PSG reached the Champions League final last year, before losing to Bayern Munich, who themselves have a close relationship with Qatar. Abu Dhabi has never reached the final with City.
For both club owners, however, a win in this semifinal would not only be pleasing because it would bring them one step closer to the big dream, but also because it would have knocked out a rival from the region. It’s not just about football.