Just over two years ago, when Saudi Arabia unveiled an ambitious plan entitled Vision 2030, financial analysts, economists and politicians across the globe began scrutinising the details.
Ostensibly designed to reduce the Kingdom’s dependence on oil, the announcement was clearly of interest to those who wield power in places like London, Washington and Zurich. But closer to home, despite the presence of HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at Bramall Lane, the scheme created little if any fuss among Sheffield United’s hierarchy.
It was entirely understandable. After all, as Nigel Adkins’ soporific reign meandered towards a somnolent conclusion, their priority was fathoming how to improve results. Not wondering if Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the strategy’s figurehead, was right to implement measures including a five per cent flotation of Saudi Aramco.
Perhaps, on reflection, that disregard was misguided. Twenty-one months after the project was rolled-out, Prince Abdullah launched a takeover attempt which, if successful, will see him buy fellow co-owner Kevin McCabe’s shares and assume sole control of United. Although the timing might be a coincidence, it is fascinating to wonder if the move is linked to reports his country’s government, after watching Dubai and Qatar exert influence through sport, is looking to employ similar ‘soft power’ tactics? There is compelling evidence to suggest they are. However, as one leading academic has told this newspaper, a variety of domestic factors could make this problematic in the short-term.
What is certain is that Saudi Arabia, where Prince Abdullah recently served in a role equivalent to our Minister for Sport, wants to help shape football. According to the Financial Times, investors from the country have joined a consortium whose proposals include an expansion of the Club World Cup and the establishment of new international leagues. Japan’s SoftBank, which has previously worked closely with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, are also thought to be involved in the cartel. FIFA have been promised a 51 per cent stake in the $25bn joint-venture to sweeten the deal.
Prince Abdullah, who served notice of his desire to purchase McCabe’s stake in response to a process instigated by one of the latter’s companies, is also a long-standing advocate of privatising clubs in the Saudi Professional League. The General Sports Authority, where he once held the post of president, confirmed earlier this month that MbS was providing around $340m to clear the debts owed by SPL teams.
Time will tell if Prince Abdullah’s move for United is an individual enterprise or potentially part of something much bigger.