Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani was just 28 when he joined the board of Credit Suisse in 2010, tasked with representing Qatari interests after investors from the Gulf emirate poured billions into the Swiss bank.
He arrived at the Zurich-based lender with a low profile, and after seven years with a seat at the top table, left with one.
“The only recollection I have is that he was rather a quiet man,” said one former fellow director, while another person who often attended meetings added: “I don’t recall him speaking at all.”
Now, Sheikh Jassim is prepared to sacrifice that low-key status in pursuit of his passion for Manchester United, one of world football’s most prestigious clubs. Earlier this month, he submitted a bid for the club, one rich in history but starved of success over the past decade.
While the 40-year-old has not disclosed how he would pay for the Premier League club in a sale that could set a new record price for a sports team, he comes from significant wealth.
Sheikh Jassim is the second son of former Qatar prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, known as HBJ, and former head of the state’s sovereign wealth fund. A distant cousin of the emir in the ruling clan and one of the Gulf state’s richest men, HBJ’s wealth is put at $1.3bn by Forbes, but people in Doha estimate it at many multiples of that.
“He can never be at the same level as his father, who is a giant in the world of money and power,” said one banker, who describes Sheikh Jassim, who was educated at Sandhurst military academy, as “less extroverted”. “But he has learned at the feet of one of the sharpest investors,” he added.
For a decade, Sheikh Jassim ran Al Mirqab Capital, which manages the family’s portfolio of investments, before branching out.
Among his portfolio of roles, Sheikh Jassim chairs QInvest, an investment bank and asset manager formed in 2007, as well the Qatar Islamic Bank, in which the Qatar Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund, is a major shareholder.
His advisers on the bid for Manchester United, which has been owned by the Glazers, an American family, since they bought it in a controversial leveraged buyout in 2005, are confident it will prove more compelling than a rival proposal from British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe. The pair are the only two declared bidders.
With fans increasingly restless at the direction of the club under the Glazers, Manchester United has been on Sheikh Jassim’s radar for the past 12 months, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Sheikh Jassim has said his vision is to return the club to its “former glories” through “sustainable investment” in its players and infrastructure via a newly established vehicle called the Nine Two Foundation. The bid, which will be debt-free, is expected to value the club at about $4.5bn, according to people familiar with the matter.
People familiar with the matter say funding for the bid has no connection to the Qatari state. That is essential in adhering to Uefa rules that block multiple ownership of clubs, given the Qatar state controls French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
“I wouldn’t necessarily see this as a ‘Qatari’ bid,” said Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Doha. “I think much of the son’s fortune is based on his father’s wealth.”
The principal adviser to HBJ at Al Mirqab is Shahzad Shahbaz, a former Bank of America executive. “Al Mirqab is like a mini-QIA, investing in deals across banking, hospitality, real estate and food and beverage,” said a banker familiar with the matter. Bank of America is advising Sheikh Jassim on the Manchester United bid.
Sheikh Jassim has long been in his father’s shadow. For many years, HBJ was at the forefront of geopolitics and international finance through a long career as foreign minister, prime minister and head of the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund.
He helped forge modern Qatar together with the father emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who came to power in a palace coup in 1995, by building a massive natural gas export industry.
That fuelled Qatar’s transformation from a modest oil exporter into one of the world’s richest countries. As head of the QIA, HBJ deployed excess hydrocarbon revenues in a bid to build a future for Qatar in a post-oil era.
The QIA became a global name in finance, investing in carmaker Volkswagen and grocer Sainsbury’s, as well as London’s Canary Wharf and luxury department store Harrods.
While HBJ has never previously shown an interest in buying a football club, bankers say he has a keen eye for financial details. One person recalls him flying into London to deliver a keynote address after he had dinner with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin the night before. Before heading on for lunch with Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, he received an update on a deal on the way to the airport.
“He quickly spotted a mistake made by one of the analysts within the term sheet’s dense grid of derivative transactions — it was unbelievable,” the person said.
HBJ stepped down in 2013 after the father emir abdicated in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim. The current emir is two years older than Sheikh Jassim, also went to Sandhurst and supports Manchester United.
In contrast to his father, Sheikh Jassim has never taken on a government role. His limited forays into business outside Qatar have included QInvest’s deal to take UK stockbroker Panmure Gordon private in partnership with former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond and now head of Atlas Merchant Capital.
“He is very understated, reserved and professional,” Diamond said of Sheikh Jassim. “He is easy to get to know and very open.”
He has an interest in a hospitality business that licenses a franchise of the Doha steakhouse of Turkish butcher and chef Nusret Gökçe, who is better known as Salt Bae. The chef stirred controversy by celebrating on the pitch with Argentinian players following their victory in last year’s World Cup final in Doha.
One acquaintance says that Sheikh Jassim is seen in St Tropez on yachts during summers and is a member of Robin Birley’s private members club 5 Hertford Street in Mayfair. His preferred car of choice when in London is a Mini Cooper, according to another acquaintance.
And the family is well acquainted with London. HBJ’s portfolio includes a 50 per cent stake in restaurateur Richard Caring’s empire that is home to members’ club Annabel’s and the Ivy chain of eateries. Together with the former emir, HBJ owns a controlling stake in the Maybourne Group, which owns marque London hotels such as Claridge’s and the Connaught.
Diamond describes Sheikh Jassim as a “very professional, thoughtful, very long-term investor. What strikes me is he is hugely focused on protecting the downside.”
The Qatari investor is betting that a successful bid for Manchester United would provide plenty of upside.
Additional reporting by Samuel Agini and Robert Smith in London