Saturday 2 March 2024

Sheikh Up The Telegraph

Ned is more right than wrong:

Not since 1985 has a foreign bid for a British business so animated the Westminster classes. Then, the fate of a Somerset helicopter-maker, Westland, sparked a serious and soul-searching debate over whether our future lay with the transatlantic Special Relationship or, instead, across the Channel with Europe.

Fast-forward four decades, and the company in question is a heritage publisher — the Telegraph Media Group — which is facing a takeover by an Emirati Sheikh. This affair has triggered a rather more low-rent row over Britain’s global status. The critics fret that this deal would be an acceptance of our lowly role of “Butler to the World”, as Oliver Bullough memorably phrased it in his eponymous book.

Overwhelmed by a deluge of Oriental investment, we have been reduced to the position of pimps, fixers and court entertainers for the shady men behind the money — or so the argument goes.

In this context, the potential acquisition of the Telegraph by a group backed by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is vice president of the UAE, is seen as a malign attempt to convert financial might into political influence.

The pygmies and half-wits of the Tory green benches have been getting into tangles seeking to block the deal, while cloaking their xenophobia. “We cannot separate Sheikh and state,” opined Alicia Kearns. “We would oppose it if the French government wanted to buy the newspapers,” spluttered Iain Duncan Smith.

Weirdly, Julian Lewis went so far as to invoke Taylor Swift — suggesting Telegraph hacks should follow the pop star’s example and redo their old material for a new media platform should the Gulfies take control.

Look, I understand there are some elements of Gulf culture which make us queasy, but let’s get things in perspective. We may not like their treatment of migrant workers, but who among us paid much attention to the conditions of the anonymous souls who dug out the bedrock for our basement conversions?

Similarly, we may not much like the Arab treatment of women. But, then again, if last year’s joyous — and very sober — football world cup inspired even a handful of English fans to forego the “Wife Beater”, then the Qataris will have done womankind a great service.

The important point is this. If we tried, just for a moment, to see the world from the perspective of the marble-lined boardrooms of Abu Dhabi, Doha or Bahrain, we might conclude Sheikh Mansour is, in fact, the natural and best possible owner of the Telegraph.

The awful truth is that Arab investment provides an important source of the patient capital that we need to build our economy. Generally, their investment strategies are long-term and multi-generational, investing now to provide for grandchildren when, in a few decades, the oil wells may get capped.

And, though we hate to admit it, we have benefitted splendidly from this far-sighted largesse. Thanks in large part to Arab investment, the Premier League is the world’s leading sports franchise worth £7 billion to our GDP. Qatari cash built the Shard, which catalysed the transformation of Southwark from a drab backwater into one of London’s more interesting neighbourhoods.

As our high streets founder, Middle East investors are among the few who are still committed to bricks and mortar retail — though admittedly their focus is on high-end outlets like Selfridges and Harrods. More prosaically, Arab money is part of the mix in countless commercial property ventures and infrastructure projects. It is this long-term focus that media groups like the Telegraph need if they are to transition to a digital future.

Historically, the Gulf’s sovereign wealth funds and family offices have been overweight in the UK because we aligned with their low risk appetite. They liked our long track record of political stability, sound money and enforceable rule of law.

However, following the Westminster psychodramas of the past few years, I suspect the investment officers of these cautious-minded funds have been penning agitated reports warning of Britain’s growing “geopolitical risk”, while flagging potential asset write-downs.

With so much “value at risk”, it would be unsurprising if Sheikh Mansour wanted to take out a little insurance, by using the Telegraph acquisition to get a seat at the political table.

Now, the team behind his bid have pledged that the newspaper will retain its editorial independence should they acquire the business. But, in my opinion, such a hands-off approach to ownership would be a lost opportunity both for the Sheikh and this country.

It would be refreshing to have a new, distinctive media voice which promotes the views of those who have the best long-term interests of the economy at heart. Such a voice would celebrate the few politicians who actually care about prosperity, productivity and predictable regulation.

Sadly, in our frivolous culture, thoughtful folk in politics tend to be derided as “bores” or “wonks”. This new media voice would also punish the charlatans, so often lionised by our journalists, who are easily titillated by vanity projects, quick fixes and general silliness.

Maybe then we might once again have decision-makers with the seriousness of the Heseltines and Brittans who, for all their many flaws, had clear visions for our long-term growth.


  1. This'll be huge fun when it happens.

    1. And with GB News on the brink of going bust, it is not going to be Paul Marshall instead.