MEE: How Bangladesh Sold Its Future to the Gulf States

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Armed guards outside a newspaper office in Dhaka, Bangladesh. ©James Montague

In August 2017 my third book “The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners” (Bloomsbury) was released. The book took me all over the world looking at the backstories of the super-rich who were now investing in football clubs: China, the UAE, Qatar and, most surprisingly, Bangladesh.

Whilst football is growing in this cricket-mad country, there hasn’t been any investment as such from Bangladeshi billionaires in European football. But the country plays an important part in that story.

There is little doubt that the wealth of the Middle East is reshaping the game. Whilst that wealth is derived mainly from oil and gas, it is the millions of poorly paid migrant workers who build these autocracies on the shores of Persian Gulf. Most come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Much has been written about the kafala system of sponsorship in relation to the building projects for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar. Kafala has been described by Human Rights Watch as a form of “indentured servitude” and it is Bangladeshi workers that tend to be the worst paid and worst treated. And not just in Qatar. The UAE too has an appalling record on worker and human rights. This is especially relevant given that Manchester City is owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family and, effectively, by the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mansour, the club’s owner, is one of the most powerful political figures in the country and many of the club’s board members are also deeply involved in an economy dependent on the kafala system.

So I wanted to explain how a worker comes to leave Bangladesh and arrive in the Middle East. Why do they leave? What happens on the way? And how are they treated when they get there? What I saw in Bangladesh was a broken system where some of the poorest people in the world are exploited on every step of the way by agents, employers and, in the end, whole countries.

An extract of my chapter was published by Middle East Eye and can be read here.

You can buy The Billionaires Club (UK) in hardback, ebook or auido book here.

For the rest of the world you can buy The Billionaires Club here.

Bangladesh, Portsmouth & Thaksin

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Armed guards in central Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. ©James Montague

It has been an intense few months, travelling to a dozen different countries gathering material for my next book. So far it has taken from The Netherlands to the US, France, the UK, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and, most interestingly, Bangladesh.

It is a cricket mad country, but I was interested in the huge number of migrant workers who leave the country to build the megastructures in the Middle East. Whilst I was there though, I managed to squeeze in some football, the 2016 KFC Independence Cup. It was a pre-season tournament of sorts. And who did I bump into? No less than Rohan Ricketts, the former Spurs and Arsenal player now famous for his globe trotting antics.

I did this report from Dhaka for the BBC World Service’s World Football show.

In the same episode I also reported from Paris. This time, it was to interview Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand. Most people in the UK also know him for being the owner of Manchester City for one season, during which he was deposed in a coup and had all his assets frozen.

I asked him about his time in English football, the coup and, of course, Leicester City (whose owners are from Thailand and whom Thaksin remains friends with.)

Finally, I also visited the south coast of England to see Portsmouth FC. In 2008 they finished in the top half of the Premier League and had just won the FA Cup. But a series of disastrous owners (one of whom they are still not sure actually exist) left the club on the brink of extinction.

The fans stepped in and it is now the largest club run by a supporters trust in the country. I went to watch their last game of the season to speak to the fans who saved the club, and to see if there is anything we can learn from them about the game in the era of rampant commercialisation.