(Asharq Al-Awsat)- In this exclusive interview, Asharq Al-Awsat talks to Sulaiman al Fahim, the former owner of Portsmouth FC who recently sold 90 percent of the club’s shares to Saudi businessman Ali al Faraj after only six weeks of ownership. He speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat about the increasing interest of Arab tycoons in English football clubs.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) In your opinion, why are Gulf investors rushing to buy English premier league clubs?
A) Everybody knows that the English [premier] league is the biggest football league in the world and only 20 clubs take part. This means that there is a limited number of club owners and a small number of investment opportunities, as not every club is up for sale. Moreover, if we look at the league’s financial revenues we will find that last year it brought in revenues of 1.9 billion pounds sterling. In other words, it makes up a quarter of the revenues of all European leagues. Let us not forget other revenues gained from media, marketing, clothing, and ticket sales. It is also apparent that competition has increased to win broadcasting rights to air the premier league matches on television [channels] outside of the UK. For example, in 1994, the rights to broadcast the matches for one season only to the Middle East were won for six million dollars. Later, the Showtime channels obtained the right to broadcast three seasons for 120 million dollars and recently, the Abu Dhabi sports channel won the right to broadcast premier league matches for three seasons for 330 million dollars. Therefore there has been an average 18 percent increase in marketing revenues to win broadcasting rights and this is an excellent incentive for investing in the premier league.
Q) But it is evident that investors, yourself included, are going for clubs that are in debt and in financial trouble. What is your comment in this regard?
A) If a club is not in debt then there is no opportunity to buy. It is very difficult to buy a club that is not in debt. Secondly, the debts are not that large. For example, the amount of Portsmouth’s debt oscillates between 60 and 70 million pounds sterling; this is not considered large debt especially for clubs in the top six positions. For your information, the financial value of the players is over 60 million pounds and it was the Egyptian businessman Mohamed al Fayad who began these kinds of investments when he bought Fulham FC. After that I helped the Abu Dhabi United Group buy Manchester City last year, and this year I agreed to buy Portsmouth FC and resold it to the Saudi investor Ali al Faraj. There will be more deals soon in this regard.
Q) What were the reasons for selling Portsmouth after owning it for only six weeks?
A) It was purely a matter of investment. I saw that there was a good opportunity in selling for an excellent profit. Praise be to God as Ali al Faraj’s presence helped me a lot, as he was interested in buying the club when I was negotiating with the former owner. That helped me buy the club and then put it up for sale again.
Apart from this, there were many reasons for selling the club; [for example] Peter Storrie, the current Chief Executive Officer of the club liked the businessman Ali al Faraj and the group that bought the club. Therefore, the decision [to sell the club] was quick and for an excellent profit and for me it was the right decision.
Q) We know that you bought Portsmouth FC for 60 million pounds sterling. What other details of the deal can you tell us about?
A) I sold 90 percent of the club’s shares for a total of 70 million pounds sterling and I have retained 10 percent of the shares. I will remain head of the club’s board of directors for two seasons. Moreover, I kept 100 percent of the club’s real estate assets and this is something nobody has paid attention to or spoken about. I am announcing this for the first time that [the real estate assets] are owned by the Al Fahim Group. Without doubt the real estate aspect is important in sports investment. Praise be to God, I was able to transfer all the club’s debts to the new owner and I gained excellent revenue.
Q) What is your response to claims that affluent people from the Gulf region are buying English clubs in search of fame?
A) To tell the truth I don’t know of any new Gulf investors entering the market of English clubs. However, in reference to myself, I entered this field purely for investment reasons but it’s nice to have a media presence as well as financial profit. Unfortunately, not many people know what goes on behind closed doors regarding these deals. I believe that my selling of Portsmouth FC came after my failure to develop it. At the same time, I think the deal [led to] my biggest profit over the past few years, and I hope more Arabs enter this field of investing in the English or Spanish or Italian leagues, as it is a good opportunity to make profit. Let us not forget the importance of investment in other sports such as Rugby or Cricket. In general, I have meetings in foreign countries that consider football a new game and I find it is an excellent area for media investment.
Q) Portsmouth entered an agreement with a new manager for the club, Avram Grant from Israel, who is the former manager of Chelsea. What is your comment on this?
A) This goes back to the vision of the new owner, Ali al Faraj, and his group that bought the club, because even during negotiations, Israeli football player Tal Ben Haim was already in the final stages of being bought after negotiations had reached a very advanced stage before I stepped in and secured the deal to buy the club. Al Faraj is the one who made the decision to buy the Israeli player and the same goes for the manager [Grant], in addition to the appointment of a new member to the club’s board Mark Jacob. I do not interfere in such matters and I know nothing about it except from [what] the media [publishes]. I sent an email to the board after receiving many phone calls and the board confirmed the decision of the new ownership that he [al Faraj] owned 90 percent in the club’s shares. He should have informed us of that. I don’t know perhaps al Faraj thought that this was best for the club because of its participation in the English premier league.
For your information, I was against selling the Algerian player Nadir Belhaj and I helped to obtain citizenship for Hassan Yabda and also hoped to buy the Egyptian striker Amr Zaki. I explained this to the [British] media even though they attacked me and questioned why I was interested in getting Zaki. Despite all that I will request the player again because he is an excellent striker and will contribute significantly to the team.
Q) After having gained experience in the English premier league, would you buy other clubs such as West Ham for example that is suffering financially?
A) I have a company that specializes in managing financial assets and I have people specializing in sports investments. Before we would make such a move, I would make sure there is an investor willing to buy the club, whether it is West Ham or any other club, as it is possible to know what the buyer wants and to look for a club that would fulfill his ambitions financially or in terms of results. I hope there are Gulf investors as I loved this aspect of it all.
Q) Have you met the Saudi businessman Ali al Faraj?
A) No, but I met his brother Ahmed al Faraj. He is a good, respectable man.
Q) You are a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador at-Large for IIMSAM that specializes in tackling malnutrition in Africa and you are the president of the UAE Chess Federation and a member of a number of sports and trade federations. How do you juggle all these positions?
A) I am a UN Goodwill Ambassador at Large for IIMSAM, the Permanent Observer to the United Nations Economic and Social Council to secure the UN’s millennium development goals and aims to eliminate malnutrition in the world. I believe that a human cannot be called human without being humane by giving this matter some time. I have had an interest in this since I was young as I lost a big part of my family when I was still young. I was aware of the significance of having an interest in this matter and its effect. I hope I can be a big brother and a father to the children who need caring. For your information, my wife and I launched [a charity called] ‘Dar al Mumineen’ in Kenya and we are sponsoring 120 children and looking after them medically and teaching them about religion and the Quran. We have looked after and educated 4000 children so far, praise be to God. I agreed to meet Mama Sarah Obama as there was an attempt to convert her to Christianity but we managed to help her uphold her [Islamic] faith and she agreed to come with me on a Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage this year but there was the problem with the spread of the Swine Flu epidemic. Also, as part of the presidency of the UAE Chess Federation, I worked towards giving 10 players the chance to study abroad on the condition that they assign some of their time to carrying out voluntary work. I hope that people, in accordance with their own positions and capabilities, give time to charity and voluntary work and this is what our Islamic religion encourages us to do.