When Sheikh Khaled’s name first became mentioned in football circles, when he was involved in takeover attempts at Liverpool and Newcastle United before Derby County, many experts on Abu Dhabi found it difficult to actually get information on him.
“It was very hard,” Dr Kristian Ulrichsen, of Rice University, explains. “We initially thought he was a full brother of Sheikh Mansour, the owner of Manchester City, which would have been a conflict of interest. We quickly concluded he wasn’t.”
Such a vacuum has raised a series of questions about the nature of Derby’s takeover, and what it means for the club, and the game. The EFL have approved a purchase that will see the Championship side bought by Derventio Holdings, which is ultimately controlled by Bin Zayed International, owned by Sheikh Khaled bin Saqr Zayed al-Nayhan.
Many at Newcastle were wondering why this was seemingly being waved through while their own planned takeover – by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – was subject to so much scrutiny, and ultimate frustration. Others are asking whether this is the same sort of political project, or any way linked to City Football Group? Will it see a similar level of investment into Derby County? Is it sportswashing?
The answer to most of the latter questions is no. Those answers are also why it just isn’t subject to the same scrutiny as Newcastle’s takeover. Sheikh Khaled is a distant cousin of Mansour, but a split means their branch of the Al-Nahyan family don’t even live in Abu Dhabi, having been exiled to Dubai in the 1920s.
“I think the situation is more like Sheffield United’s takeover by a Saudi businessman,” Dr Ulrichsen explains. “This is a cadet branch of the main power broker, without the resources of a state-led branding project behind it. This is a much more peripheral figure, who has made money and business connections from being a member of a royal family, but doesn’t have the backing of the state. He has whatever resources he’s made from a business career.
“This isn’t a state takeover, in my view.”
One question that has been raised in football circles is whether the United Arab Emirates’ strict hierarchy of power could see state influence exerted on Derby.
“In theory, it could happen, but I don’t think it would,” Dr Ulrichsen explains. “Sheikh Khaled is so peripheral. I don’t think UAE as a state or Abu Dhabi as an emirate would seek to use that as a state-branding exercise in the way that has been done with City.
“What was interesting last year, when he emerged with the Newcastle rumours, insiders at Manchester City were quite keen to distance the club’s owners from him. There had been an impression that Sheikh Khaled had actually been trying to promote an impression he was part of the family, that he was closer to the centre than he actually was.
“Yes, he’s a member of the royal family, but he’s so far removed.”
This is why, Dr Ulrichsen believes, the bigger questions about the takeover should regard what the realistic expectations are for Derby fans.
“Well, he clearly wants a football team, after having been linked to Liverpool, then Newcastle. It might just be interest in a team. Let’s be brutally honest, maybe he’s found his level. He’s not been able to play in the big league, the Premier League. He might have gone down. There might be other reasons, he could have found a business partner in the Midlands.
“But having gone for Liverpool and Newcastle, and obviously not being the name that had been thought, he could have found his level.
“But it’s more of a Sheffield United than a Man City, I think. So Derby have got to be realistic.”
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