Sulaiman Al-Fahim is, of course, the new owner of Portsmouth Football Club, but his accession there hasn’t been without a degree of controversy. Mark Murphy wonders this emperor’s new clothes are already starting to look a bit ragged.
According to the Premier League, Sulaiman Al-Fahim is a fit and proper person to be running one of its clubs. Considering that every time a football club gets into financial difficulties the press will ask the rhetorical question of what the purpose of the fit & proper person test is, it is perhaps instructive to consider the case of Al-Fahim, who may or may not be what he seems. What, then, can one say about property developer and tycoon, United Nations (UN) goodwill ambassador-at-large and reality TV star Doctor Al-Fahim? Well, we can say with a degree of confidence that he is none of the above. This much about Al-Fahim has been systematically exposed during the summer, although largely away from the mainstream media, with the usual honourable exceptions being in and around The Guardian.
People started to cotton on to these misconceptions as the Portsmouth takeover dragged on into the season, But they are still a shock to the system when laid out in front of you. The imaginatively-entitled ‘Al-Fahim Blogspot’ merrily exposed Al-Fahim’s CV as Wikipedia at its wildest and, while the blog has been as subject to the vagaries of rumour and misinterpretation of ‘inside’ information as any, a very impressive proportion of its revelations have been accurate.
Al-Fahim is a property developer – a ‘tycoon’ in the more favourable media. His company Hydra Properties, however, struggled to develop anything other than a trail of disaffected investors while he was Chief Executive. Subsequently, Al-Fahim has been moved from his executive role to ordinary board member, a move which was labelled a promotion by his people, but in reality was as much of a ‘promotion’ as it sounds. His UN goodwill ambassadorship is nothing of the sort. He is ‘ambassador-at-large’ for the “Inter-governmental Institution for the use of Micro-Algae Spirulina against Malnutrition”, a company which “promotes algae as a foodstuff”. IIMSAM is an “observer” at the UN’s Economic and Social Council. It watches the UN. But it isn’t a part of it. You wouldn’t guess that from the equal billing the UN’s logo gets alongside IIMSAM’s own at the head of its web-site’s homepage, but it was equal enough to attract attention from the UN’s legal department.
His reality TV ‘stardom’ went the same way as his Hydra executive career. His show, ‘Hydra Executives,’ largely represented a large-scale corporate advert and was axed when Al-Fahim was demoted from his executive role within the company. The second series had been filmed but wasn’t due for transmission until mid-autumn and all twenty-four episodes now sit in post-production slowly gathering dust, unlike a clip that surfaced on YouTube of Al-Fahim signing himself as “Doctor” on a contract. Attempts by his people to pass off his ‘doctorate’ as a media misunderstanding of his American University dual-MBA (“he does not call himself a doctor, no”) were somewhat undermined by the footage. Just only a few weeks ago, Al-Fahim put “Dr” in the ‘Title’ box of… the Premier League’s fit and proper persons’ documentation, and he was still listed as “Dr” on Hydra’s web-site until his name was removed from the site altogether.
This version of Al-Fahim was the product of a PR-team way more effective than he’s been, and he has attracted media attention ranging from sycophancy to cynicism. Arabian Business magazine’s English journalist, Anil Bhoyrul, is a fan. Bhoyrul’s claim to fame was his involvement in the Daily Mirror’s share-tipping’ scandal, ten years ago. His inside information then produced a week’s community service. His inside information now produced coverage of Al-Fahim which came across as being on the “get a room” side of obsequiousness. Bhoyrul’s Al-Fahim ‘exclusives’ have delved into Al-Fahim’s mind because that’s where they’ve come from. July 11th and 24th were trumpeted as “I’ve seen the paperwork” days for the Portsmouth takeover’s completion. Bhoyrul said that “I would rather be a Portsmouth fan than Arsenal…my team haven’t got any plans…Portsmouth are going places”. These words may come back to haunt Bhoyrul in his dotage more than any involvement with the Mirror’s Piers Morgan should Portsmouth drop into the Championship this season.
Fahim’s actual spokesman, ubiquitous Italian-born Ivo Ilic Gabara, has a real CV to match Al-Fahim’s ‘misinterpreted’ one. Gabara spent decades as a journalist, lobbyist and partner in London-based BGR Gabara LLP. These decades included two years as Head of the European Commission’s information office in Sarajevo. Alongside that, a summer telling Portsmouth Today that Al-Fahim’s takeover was “still on track” was a well-earned rest. Even Gabara, however, may struggle to counter the picture of Al-Fahim painted by Pompey Chief Executive Peter Storrie at a recent meeting with the Pompey Virtual Alliance, a representative group of the Portsmouth Football Club fan websites and message boards. Before Portsmouth’s home defeat to Bolton, Storrie told representatives of PVA tales which made relief at Al-Fahim’s completed takeover more temporary than a Uefa ban for diving. The minutes of the meeting show that, in response to some very pertinent questioning from the group, Storrie claimed that Al-Fahim did not yet understand how the club ran, although he was supposedly well aware of the effect of dragging out takeover negotiations until days before the end of the transfer window.
Al-Fahim had yet to tell Pompey’s finance director how he was going to fund the club and that he had difficulty with the club’s relationship with the Inland Revenue. Storrie also let slip his frustrations with Al-Fahim’s pronouncements in international media interviews, and he revealed how Al-Fahim’s liking for publicity was obstructing what Storrie saw as productive talks with potential investors such as the Al-Faraj family (brought to the club by Storrie himself, of course, when the Al-Fahim takeover bid looked to be in its death throes). Storrie has since stated that these were “not direct comments by me, just the fans’ interpretation”, which is, of course, what minutes of meetings are. Pointedly, he did not deny the veracity of fans’ interpretations. Three days after the meeting Al-Fahim came up with agreement “in principle” over new funding.
Quibbling details such as who this funding is coming from, how much they are putting into the club, what’s in it for them and what it will be spent on are being held back until September 25th when Al-Fahim will “outline” his future plans to another Portsmouth Virtual Alliance gathering, and those who think that Fahim has spent the summer outlining his plans (which didn’t amount to a great deal more than “investment in the academy”) might be hoping for more detail from this meeting than they might get. All of which leads us back to our originala question – what sort of person is Sulaiman Al-Fahim? A fake doctor? A fake UN goodwill ambassador? A failed reality TV star? Not as rich as he led fans to believe when he first appeared on the Portsmouth scene? All of the above, quite possible, to which you can apparently add “fit and proper to own a Premier League football club”. Instructive, indeed.