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Sun 2 Sep 2018 10:09 AM

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Opinion: Why Saudi should jump at news of Chelsea FC sale

Reports of Roman Abramovich's willingness to listen to offers for the London club are certain to tempt buyers from the oil-rich kingdom

Opinion: Why Saudi should jump at news of Chelsea FC sale
Blue is the colour: Chelsea Football Club would appeal to buyers from across the Arab World – even with a pricetag of $2.58bn

According to the Sunday Times newspaper in the UK last week, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has quietly put Chelsea Football Club up for sale.

The West London side, which occupies a slab of prime real estate in the ever-desirable Fulham, has become a major force in the game under his stewardship, emerging from the middle of the Premier League pack to win five domestic titles, a host of cups and, most importantly, the 2012 Champions League.

Despite winning the Premier League as recently as 18 months ago, though, sources in London believe Abramovich has lost some of his passion for the project, prompting his desire to listen to offers close to the £2bn ($2.58bn) mark.

The Sunday Times – which, incidentally, was successfully sued nine years ago for a similar claim – even suggested he’s now brought in consultants from the Raine Group, a specialist bank part-owned by Mubadala, to seek interest from investors in China, the US and Middle East.

Despite the pricetag, which represents a reasonable return on the $1.55bn Abramovich has sunk into the club since he acquired it in 2003, is sure to attract interest from across the latter.

Gulf investors have long been drawn to the earning potential and global stature of English football, with current champions Manchester City, owned by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the most obvious and successful example.

In the past half-dozen years, Nottingham Forest, Portsmouth and Leeds United have also attracted buyers from Kuwait, Dubai and Bahrain respectively.

Indeed, it emerged recently that Sheikh Khaled Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, cousin of Sheikh Mansour, has reportedly had repeated bids for Liverpool turned down, so it’s not unreasonable to think Chelsea’s sudden availability could tempt him to switch targets.

The ability for Saudi to project the country to a global audience in the way Abu Dhabi has managed with Manchester City has obvious appeal”

Kingdom come

One source of funding that might also be tempted by any “for sale” sign at Chelsea is Saudi Arabia. The country’s sole interest in the English game thus far is second-tier Sheffield United, 50 percent of which is owned by Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdul Aziz, who has spent much of 2018 trying to acquire the remaining half.

In June this year, the Sheffield Star newspaper, when discussing the ownership dispute, quoted sources saying: “it is only a matter of time before the kingdom acquires a stake, possibly through its Public Investment Fund, in a team overseas”.

Chelsea would certainly tick most of the boxes for Saudi investors. Its West London home is familiar – and accessible – territory for the Arab elite, and the accompanying real estate, which includes a hotel and restaurants, is able to provide year-round income and a future-proof investment.

Then there is the power of the game itself: due to broadcasting and commercial power, the club’s annual turnover is more than $464m – and that’s before the “soft power” that the status of club ownership brings.

With Vision 2030 on the horizon, the ability for Saudi to project the country to a global audience in the way Abu Dhabi has managed with Manchester City, and Dubai, via the ubiquity of the Emirates logo, has inside in sporting stadia around the world, has obvious appeal.

According to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at the UK’s Salford University, Saudi Arabia is now wanting to “exert more influence on world football and upon other countries through football”, which it sees as a way “to achieve some sort of parity with its near neighbours such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have spent heavily on various aspects of football.” It would also fit with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s desire for positive headlines in the western media.

With the pound sliding against the dollar-backed riyal, that $2.58bn might start to look like a bargain.

Eddie Taylor, Arabian Business magazine editor.

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