Danny Moran on Abu Dhabi, ethical policy and Sir Richard Leese

The jailing for life in the UAE of academic Matthew Hedges has thrown a spotlight on all those who have dealings with the controversial oil-rich gulf state. A case of spying or of diplomatic bargaining? Of all those in bed with the sheikhs, few are as in up to their necks as our own municipality. What with Manchester City, the Manchester Life housing project, and all the various other strands of the Abu Dhabi partnership, we might once again be asking: should we really be letting the UAE launder its image in our front room?

It may be worth asking ourselves to what extent we require an ethical policy regarding inward investment into Manchester

It may or may not be remembered that the City project got off to quite a bad start, publicity-wise, when that unfortunate video footage emerged of the crown prince's brother - that’s club chairman Sheikh Mansour's half-brother, Issa - getting cross with an Afghan grain merchant who he deemed to have short-changed him on a deal.

The uncalled-for retributions served on the man during the course of the 45-minute tape - the insertion of the cattle prod, the setting fire to the genitals, the feeding of the sand, the introduction of the nails, the application of the salt and the audible breaking of the bones as the prince jollied his Chelsea Tractor back and forth over the roped trader - risked the impression being given of a monarchy over-comfortable with its privileges.

Matthew Hedges
Durham University PhD student Matthew Hedges has been sentenced to life in prison in the UAE for spying

The revelation that the prince owns a library of such videos for the purpose of his own recreation hardly served to smooth the affair. But if guilt by association amounts to little more than mudslinging, then the more pressing matter, Abu-Dhabi-wise, might be thought to concern the Emirate’s society: a small population of voteless subjects living tax free in an air-conned desert mallscape serviced by millions of migrant workers, commonly sleeping head-to-toe in Portakabins, sweating long hours for pittance with few employment rights, doubtless wondering if it would be worth it to go home, if they only they could get hold of their passports.

While the issue of an unprotected labour force constructing the stadia for the Qatari World Cup precipitated a global outcry on account of the death toll racked up in the course of the build, the UAE seems by contrast to have been given something of a free pass. Surely the issue is germane to Mancunians? Aren’t the situations comparable? If the Qataris were so culpable, what about the Emiratis?

The negative publicity thrown up by Hedges’ imprisonment follows hard on the heels of the damning revelations in Der Spiegel about the lengths Manchester City have gone to to get round UEFA’s financial fair play regulations. “Football capitalism in its purest form,” is how the German weekly put in an exhaustive investigative report which recounts a breath-taking trail of internal emails detailing “backdated contracts, illusory sponsoring payments and cavalier ‘we can do what we want’ business practices” amounting to the misdirection of hundreds of millions of pounds: all of which, the argument follows, serve to destroy even the slightest sense of parity within the game, and which could quite plausibly, as one commentator quite rightly pointed out, presage the destruction of the Premiership with surprising speed.

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Man City accounts show Sheikh Mansour has put £1.3bn into club - adding to the £150m he paid for the club in 2008

Then there’s the case of Ahmed Mansoor, about which Amnesty International have been increasingly vocal in recent times. As one of the few dissidents openly critical of the regime in UAE, Mansoor was in May sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for the crime of posting negative comments on Facebook and Twitter. Amnesty have described the development as “another nail in the coffin for human rights activism in the country.” 

Interviewed by this writer about Manchester’s football economy, back in 2016, Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese seemed uncertain at how to field the questions relating to his council administration’s major partner. With such an extended charge sheet against the Emirate, and given that the piece of prime real estate once known as the ‘City of Manchester Stadium’ was practically gifted to Manchester City football club in 2002, and given the enormous joint foray into the Mancunian property game currently being undertaken in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi group (known as the Manchester Life partnership) one might have expected a robust defence of real world politics. Sir Richard, though, seemed to enter a slightly strange relativist dimension at that point in the conversation.

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Sir Richard Leese: "Abu Dhabi isn’t Qatar..."

Asked how many jobs had been created on the back of the £1bn+ Eastlands development he pointed to the 250 or so full time office posts which have been created around Sportcity. Pressed on the Emirate’s expansion into luxury apartments he claimed there had been a lack of demand for social housing. “Until relatively recently we couldn’t fill it,” he countered.

As for human rights: “Well, Abu Dhabi isn’t Qatar. I don’t think it’s a comparable regime. I’ve only been to Abu Dhabi once but actually I have read a history of Abu Dhabi which is very interesting. You wonder why they are so disposed to the UK given what we’ve done to them over the years.

“From what I can see they don’t have the same way of treating migrant workers as you have in Qatar. Abu Dhabi is a relatively conservative Muslim regime but I suppose if you get into the issue of covered heads for women, actually they expect men to cover their heads as well.”

You’re more likely to bring about change by engaging than by not engaging, was the general line.

Manchester Life 2
In 2014, Abu Dhabi United Group and Manchester City Council established the Manchester Life joint venture and set about transforming Ancoats

We needn’t be naïve about the ways of the world, but it may be worth asking ourselves to what extent we require an ethical policy regarding inward investment into Manchester. In fact, that’s precisely what Greater Manchester Housing Action are doing, having called a public meeting for December 3 (details below), to be co-hosted with Amnesty Inernational.

According to GMHA spokesman Issac Rose enough is enough.

“Manchester's superheated housing market is being driven by 'big capital' from around the world. One thing that is clear is that some of this capital comes from unethical places - places such as UAE which have appalling records on human rights.

“Manchester has a proud history of standing up against injustice around the world - from the workers who struck in solidarity with slaves in the US south to its heroic stand against apartheid South Africa. It's in this tradition of Manchester that GMHA is co-hosting this event with Amnesty, and why we're calling for the council to end its cosy relationship with human-rights abusing regimes."

Whatever happens to Hedges, there’s no question that the affairs of the UAE and those of Manchester have become mutually involved. But is the denial of free speech, the suffering of millions, the corruption of football and the despoiling of our Manchester’s economy an acceptable price to pay for the glamour of Pep?

A Public Meeting on the Partnership between Manchester City Council and Abu Dhabi: Saturday 8 December, 11am – 12.45pm. Methodist Central Buildings, Oldham Street

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