Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani has been to a number of Manchester United matches as a supporter. Some of those have even been away (perhaps the Carabao Cup quarter-final at Bristol City in 2017 – who knows?). This much is confirmed.
Much more about a man who hopes to be the next owner of the 20-times English champions is difficult to establish. Sheikh Jassim is not someone who courts attention; his details are not freely available online. The company hired at great expense to publicise his bid cannot even confirm his age.
All of which makes him almost the perfect figurehead for an offer that has reignited debate over the involvement of Qatar in football and its substantial presence in the UK. Can Sheikh Jassim really be an independently wealthy United fan with access to the billions necessary for a takeover, or is he just a face for the policy objectives of the Qatari state?
Maybe it’s a bit of both. Geoff Harkness is a US academic and the author of Changing Qatar, a portrait of a country undergoing “rapid modernisation”.
Though Sheikh Jassim and the emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, are not closely related, Harkness argues it would not be wrong to suspect links between the two. “I would say that those are probably valid concerns given how things work in Qatar and the relationship between the al-Thani ‘family’ and the state, which is effectively one and the same but not entirely,” he says.
“The question that I would ask is whether this is a unified attempt within the al-Thani ‘family’ … or whether this represents a split within the ‘family’, that they are competing by doing this outside of [the sovereign wealth fund] the Qatar Investment Authority.
“These guys all compete with each other: they want to buy the biggest yacht and the biggest skyscraper and also the biggest football team. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it’s being done this way. Now perhaps this competition is friendly … or perhaps not.”
Sheikh Jassim grew up alongside the emir, both attending boarding school in the UK before going to Sandhurst (another nugget of information shared by the bid says Sheikh Jassim graduated from the military academy as an officer cadet). When Sheikh Tamim became heir to his father’s throne in the noughties, Jassim’s father was perhaps the most influential man in Qatar.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jaber al-Thani held the role of foreign secretary and prime minister in Qatar between 2007 and 2013. He drove the expansionist strategy which led to the country investing heavily abroad (much of it in the UK, including the acquisition of Harrods and the Shard). Sheikh Hamad, known as HBJ, was also an enthusiast for Qatar’s engagement in global sport. He was in the Élysée Palace for the meeting between the emir and president Nicolas Sarkozy which paved the way for the acquisition of Paris Saint-Germain and, according to Sepp Blatter, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
So Sheikh Jassim’s story is intertwined with the recent history of his country. When Sheikh Tamim took power in 2013, however, Sheikh Jassim’s father was swiftly ousted from his positions of power. He left with a substantial fortune, estimated at $2bn in 2021, and his son in a role on the fringes of elite power as the chairman of the Qatari Islamic Bank (a job at which Sheikh Jassim has been very successful).
Harkness describes being a Thani in Qatar as equivalent to being called Trump in the US. However hard you may try, it is impossible to divorce yourself from the name. “I think that this is particularly true when it comes to business dealings – if you want to separate yourself then go live somewhere else,” he says.
So Sheikh Jassim may be putting up a bid for the club he fell in love with as a child (apparently in 1992, the year before United won their first Premier League title). He may be doing so to show that the family line of HBJ is still a force to be reckoned with. He may be the emir’s agent, the fresh face to help get around regulation, too.
A combination of all three would be feasible, and perhaps seems most likely. Outsiders, such as Manchester United fans, are never likely to find out the truth. “The al-Thani ‘family’ are the elite of the elite in Qatar,” Harkness says. “And when it comes to family business it all takes place behind the scenes. But I think if the emir was strongly opposed [to Sheikh Jassim’s offer] then the QIA would have a bid in.”