Brazennose street in Manchester, an innocuous thoroughfare linking Albert Square and Deansgate, is home to a little known piece of Lancastrian history. There resides an unlikely but imposing four-meter-high bronze statue of America’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. The statue, like the inspiring story it embodies, deserves a position of far greater prominence. Upon first sight, the inevitable question a passerby asks is what is Lincoln doing here? The answer lies in an exchange of letters with the working people of Manchester.
In the nineteenth century, Manchester, nicknamed Cottonopolis, was the center of the world’s cotton industry: over 60% of cotton exports from the southern states of America were sent to the cotton mills of Lancashire. So, in 1861, when Lincoln, as commander-in-chief of the Union army, blockaded southern ports to prevent cotton exports, Lancashire went from being the most prosperous region in England to the most impoverished. The so-called Lancashire cotton famine affected the poorest members of society the most.
In the town of Stalybridge, only 5 out of 63 factories and machine shops continued to employ people full time. Workers faced starvation and destitution, riots broke out and thousands of skilled workers left. Shipping bosses in Liverpool, whose businesses were built around the import and export of cotton and cotton products, sided with the South and even sent money to pay for warships to try to end the blockade. Confederacy flags were flown on the banks of the Mersey and mill owners joined shipping bosses in lobbying the government to intervene, effectively encouraging the British to take sides with the slave-owning south. Cotton mill workers, those people whose suffering had been most acute, had a different response.
On New Year’s Eve 1862, mill workers held a meeting in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. Despite the immense hardships and suffering the blockades had caused, the mill workers, knowing that the last hands to touch the cotton had been those of slaves, took a principled stance and expressed their firm support of Lincoln’s blockade and his quest to end slavery. In a letter written from the Working People of Manchester to His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, their resolve was expressed thus:
The vast progress which you have made in the short space of twenty months fills us with hope that every stain on your freedom will shortly be removed, and that the erasure of that foul blot on civilisation and Christianity—chattel slavery—during your presidency, will cause the name of Abraham Lincoln to be honoured and revered by posterity. We are certain that such a glorious consummation will cement Great Britain and the United States in close and enduring regards.
This act, under extreme economic duress, earned lavish praise from Lincoln. The letter he wrote in response is perhaps an early sign of a developing special relationship:
I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity, and freedom. I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.
This sublime Christian heroism must be one of Manchester’s most virtuous historical moments.
Slavery was abolished, and the cotton industry went into decline, and, today, Manchester is known for a different global export: football. Recently, Manchester City, long overshadowed by their rivals United, have become the dominant team in the premiership. The club’s transformation from perennial strugglers to champions can be attributed to one man: deputy prime minister of the UAE, Minister of Presidential Affairs, and member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mansour. Since his takeover, City has seen unprecedented investment in players, which has aroused both admiration and gratitude and a degree of suspicion as to the true motives of their new owners. Publicly, Mansour claims that his ownership of City is a purely a business investment, but there is evidence to suggest that his takeover may represent something deeper: a new motivation for football club ownership.
At a UAE soft power council meeting chaired by Mansour, he said, “Our goal is to build a strong reputation for the nation, through which we can achieve our developmental economic and cultural goals and ambitions.” He added, “The UAE is a regional and global platform that embraces Arab culture and global best practices; we are a global meeting point, an essential gateway to the Arab world, and offer a platform for a renaissance in the Arab world.”
The term soft power was coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye and refers to the ability to influence others and to achieve a desired outcome by co-opting people, rather than coercing them. The Soft Power 30, an annual index published by Portland Communication, ranks thirty countries according to their influence. The ranking system considers each country in terms of “the quality of political institutions, the extent of their cultural appeal, the strength of their diplomatic network, the global reputation of their higher education system, the attractiveness of their economic model, and the country’s digital engagement with the world.” In this year’s report, the UK pipped France to the number one spot. The report highlights the value of the Premier League calling it a “vital cultural asset, projecting British soft power and attracting fans around the world.”
All countries want to increase their soft power clout and if this is the motivation behind the new wave of football ownership from the Gulf states, should we be concerned? A little extra influence is a fair reward for improving human rights, but the state-backed purchase of overseas cultural assets in order to increase a country’s global standing is tantamount to fraud. Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned back in 2013 that the UAE was using soccer to “launder its image,” and this year Amnesty International accused City’s owners of “sportswashing” their country’s reputation. The UAE has been accused of silencing critics, locking up human rights defenders and treating its foreign workers like slaves.
Slavery itself was not abolished in the UAE until 1963, to be replaced by a system of sponsorship known as kafala, which legally binds a worker to his or her employer. Agents recruit foreign workers from rural parts of the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Typically, women are recruited as domestic servants, and men to work in construction. Villagers are asked to pay recruitment agents up front for a visa, with the promise that they will be able to earn enough money to pay them back within six months. Many are illiterate and are forced to sign contracts they do not understand. It is common for them to have their passports taken away upon arrival in the Gulf, and they often find they are paid far less than they were promised. Some experience physical or sexual abuse, and are forced to live in squalid conditions. They have no protection under the law and are at the mercy of their employers until their contracts end. Similar conditions have been seen before, in the aftermath of slavery.
The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, and a system of indentured labor was instituted. Laborers signed contracts for periods of five years or more and received meager wages and a promise of safe return to their native lands after their contracts expired. Workers had very few rights, could not leave and were in effect the property of their masters for the duration of the contract. Their treatment was often harsh and promises of wages and safe passage home were not always kept. Indentured labor was banned under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a form of slavery. It could be argued that the kafala system is not quite the same, because technically it may be possible for a worker to break a contract and leave—but this excuse is a ruse. Even if a worker somehow managed to get his or her passport back, a worker who breaks contract has to pay the costs of the flight home—costs which he or she generally cannot afford—and may also have to pay considerable fines to the recruitment agency. To all intents and purposes, this is an indentured labor situation.
Descendants of Lincoln’s “sublime Christian heroes” would do well to reflect on this. During the American Civil war, the people of Lancashire planted their feet firmly on the right side of history, despite their considerable hardships and struggles. Today, investment from a country whose treatment of foreign workers is comparable to slavery is celebrated, and one of Manchester’s cultural assets is being used as a means to promote its owners’ soft power—with little or no objection. Visitors to the UAE rarely spare a moment’s thought for the plight of foreign workers, while basking in the sparkling opulence of the Burj Al Arab, nor do City supporters, when savoring the brilliance of the football on display at the Etihad Stadium. Fans who once prided themselves on being the salt of the earth—in contrast with fans of the moneybags club United, now sit brazenly at the high table of European football, gloating over their gleaming trophy cabinets.
It is understandable that fans of a club long starved of success are enjoying their moment, but the association with a country often referred to as a black hole for human rights carries reputational risk. History is unlikely to remember with admiration those who reveled in the cash being poured into their club with no concern about where it came from. Imagine what might happen if City fans were to protest against their owners’ abysmal human rights record, and petition them to stop buying players and, instead, to end the kafala system and grant foreign workers their rights. It might not be quite on a par with the sublime Christian heroism of the past, but it would be impressive nonetheless.
Recent reports suggest that Saudi Arabia is interested in buying Manchester United. Already, United have a long-standing commercial partnership with Saudi Telecom and a further deal with the Saudi sports authority was struck last year. United may join City as a global football brand and a huge cultural asset, with owners from the Gulf. No matter how dazzling the football, we should not turn a blind eye to the human rights records and motivation of the owners. One Mancunian club owned by a country whose treatment of foreign workers has been described as modern-day slavery, is, to put it mildly, distressing, but the ownership of two might be enough to make Honest Abe’s statue weep.