UAE Businessman’s Israeli Soccer Dream in Flux After Audit

An Emirati businessman’s proposed deal to become part-owner of an Israeli soccer club is hanging in the balance after the league raised questions about his net worth and investments.

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, is attempting to buy a 50% stake in Beitar Jerusalem, a six-time league champion that counts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among its supporters. It would be the highest-profile ownership arrangement for an Arab investor in the country, underscoring a diplomatic warming between the two nations.

The deal is pending league approval and may get scuttled after an audit by Tel Aviv-based Megiddo Financial Intelligence highlighted one of Sheikh Hamad’s biggest assets is Venezuela’s defaulted debt, according to people familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity as the details are private.

The Israel Football Association has information indicating that more than 90% of Al Nahyan’s $1.6 billion stated net worth is tied to his holdings of the South American nation’s bonds, the people said. League officials have been deliberating on the matter for more than a month, they said.

A representative at Sheikh Hamad’s Dubai-based Private Office HBK declined to comment on his investments, net worth or the audit process. An official at Megiddo declined to comment on the proceedings.

Shlomi Barzel, an IFA spokesman, said an audit is standard with any proposed ownership change. The association still has concerns about Sheikh Hamad’s finances and gave Beitar a three-week extension to respond to its questions, he said. The club’s deadline was due to expire Tuesday.

Venezuela and its state-run oil company halted payments on some $60 billion of bonds over the past few years. The securities have slipped to just cents on the dollar amid an unrelenting economic crisis and escalating sanctions. The IFA wants to understand whether Al Nahyan’s net worth is based on the face value or the market value of the debt, the people said.

As an Emirati, Sheikh Hamad isn’t subject to U.S. restrictions on the bonds.

IFA officials are also looking into dozens of companies registered under Sheikh Hamad’s name as part of their typical due diligence, the people said. The league is also reviewing his properties and other investments, they added.

Beitar might be an unlikely choice for an Arab investor. The club has had a policy of barring players on the basis of their ethnicity while fans have gained notoriety for racist chants, both of which were acknowledged in a December press conference. Al Nahyan’s proposal would reflect a thawing of Middle East tensions after last year’s Abraham Accords paved the way for expanded business ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

At the December news conference to mark his ownership offer, Sheikh Hamad said “the door is open” for the team to sign Arab players, which would make Beitar the last club in the IFA to integrate. His Israeli partner, the tech entrepreneur Moshe Hogeg, said racism among fans wouldn’t be tolerated.

The Al Nahyan family is already a household name in the soccer world. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Al Nahyan, who is deputy prime minister of the UAE, took over the English Premier League soccer club Manchester City in 2008. His business group also owns New York City FC and Melbourne City FC. Sheikh Mansour’s brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is the UAE’s de facto leader.