A Qatar-led bid to take over Manchester United should not be entertained because of concerns about state influence and human rights abuses in the country, rights groups say.
Fears about an offer to buy the club have been raised by Amnesty International’s Manchester branch, which said it had been contacted by fans who were very worried by the news.
LGBTQ+ fan club the Rainbow Devils said it had deep concern about the bid, while FairSquare, a human rights group, has written to Uefa urging it to block a Qatar-led takeover.
The offer to buy the football club was revealed on Friday, with the bidder – Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, the chairman of one of Qatar’s biggest banks and son of the former prime minister – saying he wanted to “return the club to its former glories”.
Manchester United is being sold by owners the Glazer family, who are thought to have received several offers of about $5bn (£4.5bn). Other bidders include British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, owner of chemicals group Ineos, and Elliott, a US-based investment management company. Prospective buyers had a “soft deadline” of Friday to table their interest.
Qatar, which hosted the World Cup last year, has faced widespread criticism over human rights, including its treatment of migrant workers and of LGBTQ+ rights. During preparations for the World Cup, reports of worker abuse were widespread. Homosexuality in Qatar is illegal.
Cass Hyde of the Rainbow Devils said it wished to remain “diplomatic” in order to have a relationship with the owners, whoever they were. But she said there was no denying that Qatar’s record on LGBTQ+ rights was “genuinely dreadful”, which she said was of “massive concern”.
The group is planning a survey of its members in the coming days and has not ruled out protests or other action if it considers it necessary. “Whoever the club’s new owners are must commit to making football a sport for everyone, including LGBTQ+ supporters, players and staff,” she said.
Amnesty International’s Manchester offshoot said it had been contacted by several United supporters, who were “very worried and want to be involved in trying to make our voice heard”.
“The majority of United fans will probably be happy. Football is a joy for them; it’s not a priority to think about human rights in a faraway country,” said Kathryn Fletcher of the group. “But at what price are we prepared to have success at the club? We’re not asking people not to support the team, but to think about the implications of being involved with a country that’s got poor human rights.”
Concerns have also been raised about the potential for state influence. FairSquare has written to Uefa urging it to block a Qatar-led takeover of the club, saying it would be “impossible” to ensure the buyers were free of state influence.
James Lynch, a director of FairSquare, said owning Manchester United would give Qatar access to “all the brand power that football offers” as well as “access to a devoted fanbase”. He added: “These are not commercial investments. They are done as part of a state project to boost their image and it’s partly that it allows an avenue to pursue political aims.”
If the Qatar-led bid is successful, it would see the club join a growing number of European teams owned by Gulf states. Manchester City have been majority owned by the UAE since 2008, and Newcastle United were bought in 2021 in a £305m Saudi Arabian-backed takeover.
Since 2011, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has owned the French team Paris Saint-Germain through Qatar Sports Investments.
This weekend there was talk of plans for protests, including from fans who intended to bring a “No to Qatar” banner to Sunday’s game against Leicester City. Other fans who support the Qatari bid suggested online that they would bring Qatari flags.
Niall Couper, chief executive of Fair Game, an organisation of professional football clubs campaigning to change the governance of the game in England and Wales, said the Qatar-led bid raised broader questions about ownership of football clubs.
“Owners are role models to their communities and the fans who follow their team. The question that has never been properly addressed is: who do we want to be owning our clubs? Who should be those role models?” he said. “We need an independent regulator with real teeth which runs an owners and directors test that is finally fit and proper.”