- Monday September 01 2008 18.57 BST
Another Premier League season, another little heard of Arab takeover looms into view. In echoes of the protracted love triangle between Tom Hicks, George Gillette and DIC over the ownership and future of Liverpool, another rich consortium on the banks of the Persian Gulf has dipped its toe into the waters of Premiership club ownership. This time, though, the Abu Dhabi United Group for Investment and Development [Adug], has met with markedly less resistance.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial ex-PM of Thailand who has been at Manchester City's helm for little more than a year, clearly thought it in the best interests of his club to step aside. With $3bn worth of assets still frozen by the Thai government, anti-Thaksin protests crippling Bangkok and a member of the Man City board having to throw in the odd £2m loan to make sure the tea lady got her wages on time, it was clear his financial muscle had been curtailed. This is not a problem that Adug is ever likely to experience if, as expected, Man City's accounts are in order and it takes control of the club in two weeks time. But what do we know about the new owners?
Initially, it appeared that the bid came from an offshoot of Abu Dhabi's huge sovereign investment fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. The United Arab Emirates is made up of seven small emirates, each run by its own absolute monarch. But Abu Dhabi is the biggest and most powerful of the seven, bigger even than Dubai. It is the seat of power, the nation's capital and also the emirate where almost all of the country's vast oil reserves, estimated at almost 10% of known oil worldwide, resides. It is thought that the Emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, owns the richest sovereign fund in the world. Yet the Adug consortium has initially denied that the deal is connected to the government. According to Sulaiman Al Fahim, who brokered the deal and sits on Adug's board, it is merely a group of "prestigious businessmen". But in a society where patronage and royal decree are the driving forces behind business success, those closer to the deal suspect differently.
"This is all the Abu Dhabi royal family," explained Anil Bhoyrul, the former Mirror journalist who broke the story for his Dubai-based magazine Arabian Business. "This [Adug] is essentially an investment vehicle set up for Man City and funded by sheikhs in the royal family. It's not exactly clear which sheikhs it is yet but this is the Abu Dhabi royal family." It is no surprise either that the deal has followed on the heels of DIC's attempts to buy Liverpool. Since the country's creation in 1971 – a move driven by Sheikh Khalifa's father, the revered late Sheikh Zayed – Dubai and Abu Dhabi have competed against each other for the world's affections, a rivalry that has gone into overdrive since the turn of the century.
When Dubai built its own seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi responded with its own, the Emirates Palace. When Dubai embarked on huge, glamorous construction projects that stole headlines across the world, Abu Dhabi followed suit with plans to build a Guggenheim and a Louvre. Even sporting events have witnessed this economic one-upmanship, with Abu Dhabi setting up a rival to Dubai's PGA tour golf event and tennis tournament.
From the outside, it appeared that Abu Dhabi resented the success of its glamorous neighbour. Dubai's royal family had been so successful in branding the emirate that many assumed that it, and not Abu Dhabi, was the capital of the UAE. So when DIC, itself an investment arm of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's sovereign fund, tried and failed to buy a Premier League club, Abu Dhabi just had to keep up with the Joneses. Well, the Maktoums.
"DIC was actually looking at Man City, and then the Abu Dhabi people came in," explains Bhoyrul. "Apparently they were told by Man City that they couldn't deal with them at first as they were already dealing with someone from Dubai! But that changed when they explained they were from Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is competing with Dubai to be a global player. There is a huge rivalry between the two." Man City fans have already come to terms with the fast-paced life of being a petrodollar plaything: a top-four finish this season has been promised with Champions League football to follow. And if Dimitar Berbatov's move goes through before the deadline it will represent only the start of a huge recruitment drive. Already a list of six players has been drawn up to be targeted in the January transfer window. The list, Bhoyrul says, will "make Berbatov's signing pale in comparison".
Of course, rich sugar daddies have come in before with their smooth moves, making grand promises and wooing us with some intoxicated lovelorn chat only to sneak out in the morning with the family silver while we're still sleeping. But there are signs that this investment has a stronger footing than, say, Hicks and Gillette's investment in Liverpool. The aim of any business is to turn a profit, but there are far more important forces at work. The motivation here has a tinge of nationalism. Buying Man City is as much about putting Abu Dhabi's flag in the sand. The emirate wants to be a global sports hub, and there's no better way of fast-tracking that than buying one of the grande dames of English football. It is also ample evidence that the world's financial power base is shifting eastwards. But more importantly than that, the capture of Man City gets one over on Abu Dhabi's glamorous neighbours over their Eastern border. And that, they will conclude, is worth any price.
When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone (Mainstream), by James Montague, is out now