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Sportswashing at Tyneside: Saudi Arabia moves into English Football

The recent acquisition of the Newcastle United football club by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, along with financier Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reuben brothers, was a source of much excitement for some former players. Old boy Alan Shearer did little to conceal it. “We can dare to hope again,” he rejoiced.

In The Guardian, Barney Ronay was less enthusiastic, notably at the appearance of the House of Saud in English football. “Welcome, Mohammed bin Salman, to the billionaire boys club. No need to wipe your feet. Although maybe, on reflection, do wash your hands. Those damned spots, eh?”

Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi so brutally carved up in his country’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018, spoke of her heartbreak. It was “a real shame for Newcastle and for English football” that the club was now in the hands of “the person responsible for the murder of Jamal.”

The CEO of Amnesty International UK, Sacha Desmukh, described the deal as “an extremely bitter blow for human rights.” Great football clubs, she claimed, were “being used to sportswash human rights abuse.” Saudi Arabia had undertaken this move as part of an “aggressive move into sport as a vehicle for image-management and PR plain for all to see.”

The deal had been reached in April last year but stalled after Qatar-based beIN Sports voiced opposition. The broadcaster, holding broadcasting rights to the EPL for audiences in the Middle East and North Africa, was banned by Saudi Arabia in 2017 as part of the Kingdom’s effort to blockade Qatar.

Relations between the states have since thawed. “Following completion of the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test, the club has been sold to the consortium with immediate effect,” the EPL confirmed in its October 7 statement. The body had also been given “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.” This is much wishful thinking, given that the PIF is personally chaired by the crown prince and governed by a board stacked by Saudi government ministers and royal favourites. And just to make matters that much darker, the fund was behind the purchase of a company which owned the two private jets used by the death squad responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.

 

Crown Prince Mohammed and Jamal Khashoggi (Image from news.sky.com)

 

The fanbase had other priorities: the celebrated departure of the detested Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley; the closing of a dark chapter lasting 14 years; a shell of a club that could be revived. Under Ashley, the club went into decay, suffering two relegations and the estrangement of its supporters.

They gathered in number, cheering the announcement, sporting Saudi flags and, rather disconcertingly, donning masks of bin Salman. One fan, Paul Loraine, claimed that there was “not a lot we can do about the human rights stuff.” He reflected upon the clothing “borne out of sweatshops in countries with human rights issues. The moral compass is always a strange one in times like this.” Strange, and relativised to such a point that Ben Machell of The Times could suggest an off-colour joke regarding the unpopular manager, Steve Bruce. “Hope Newcastle United’s new owners don’t have Steve Bruce strangled and dismembered.”

 

 

While topflight football has a habit of drawing out bleeding heart sentimentalism, the Saudi role provided suitable distraction from a competition that long ago ceased being concerned with human rights or the moral compass. The acquisition was merely another move that has become common in the English Premier League, a form of soft power at play, a place to park dirty money and forum for blood-soaked finances.

Even Shearer had to admit that the sport had faced a number of sketchily drawn lines in the sand, making any claims to moral fibre weak. “Maybe it was Russian involvement in the Premier League, China or Abu Dhabi. Maybe it was Americans using the club’s own money to help complete their purchase of it.” Qatar was set to host the World Cup while Saudi Arabia had invested “in all kinds of businesses in this country and a variety of sports worldwide. It was only a matter of time before it turned to football.”

Fans of a club such as Manchester City, having tasted the sort of success in recent years Newcastle United has only dreamed of, would also have to face these lines. In June 2007, Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra purchased it for £81.6 million. Affectionately known to fans as Frank, he promised much, delivering a coach in the form of Sven-Göran Eriksson and a number of top shelf players. But during his time in office, the human rights record of the country was severely blotted. Between January 2001 and January 2005, eighteen human rights defenders were assassinated; one was disappeared. In February 2002, the Thaksin government commenced its own version of the “War on Drugs,” which saw over 2,700 extrajudicial killings.

With Sheikh Mansour of the United Arab Emirates taking the reins at Manchester City through the Abu Dhabi United Group just over a year later, a corrupt, sanguinary owner had been replaced by a member of an absolute ruling family. “City fans knew that the UAE had a dodgy human rights record. But many of us preferred to turn a blind eye,” recalls Manchester City follower and writer Simon Hattenstone.

In 2020, Amnesty International noted the continuing UAE practice of banning political opposition and imprisoning those seeking a change of government. To this could be added the conduct of trials marked by forced confessions and the incommunicado detention of accused parties. In terms of labour conditions, the UAE’s kafala sponsorship program for migrant workers remains famed for its brutal conditions and lack of protections. The Gulf state has also been a co-leading member of the coalition with Saudi Arabia in the brutal conflict in Yemen and supplier of arms and drones to the rebel Libyan National Army.

In a singular mark of cognitive dissonance, the Sheik’s ownership of the club could somehow sit alongside the wearing of a yellow ribbon by club manager Pep Guardiola, worn in solidarity for political prisoners jailed for campaigning for Catalan independence.

In turning over a new leaf, Newcastle United has placed its faith in a theocracy that does away with its dissidents using bone-sawing death squads. A support base long starved of success is already looking the other way, while the city will be looking for Saudi money to fuel investment. The ghosts of Khashoggi and other victims will be, at least for a time, passed over as needless distractions.

 

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9 comments

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  1. Jack Cade

    Newcastle United represents a community which, like my own background of Liverpool, is actually not quite English. In the case of Liverpool, for example, you can occasionally see banners in the crowd proclaiming ‘We are not English, we are Scousers’.And it’s not a joke.
    Furthermore, one Northern footballer a from Northern club, when asked why he and one or two other Northerners did not sing the National Anthem before games, said ‘She’s not our queen; she’s THEIR queen.’
    In short, tribalism still exists in England. extremely and vehemently tribal. There is a strong and serious move for the North, which has been assessed as starting at the county of Cheshire, to secede from England, demand self-government.
    The point I am meandering toward is that the fans of Newcastle United might be conflicted in their club being owned by a mediaeval regime that cuts off the hands of thieves, stones adulterers and reportedly beheads homosexuals, but also buys billions of pounds worth weapons from the ‘English’, many of whom are at this very moment are chiding Toon fans for rejoicing that their team might actually become competitive.
    Liverpool’s legendary manager Bill Shankly once said that ‘…some people think football support is a matter of life and death, but I assure you it’s more important than that!’ In some northern places it IS more important than that.
    To get to the point Geordies are entitled to say ‘You sell vile regimes vile weapons, so don’t chide us for accepting some of it back for out team.’

  2. leefe

    You’d think if there was a skerrick of decency in the fans that they’d draw the line at their club being owned, even in part, by bin Salman. But then I remember the pakana activist and Collingwood supporter who unfriended me over criticism of Eddie McGuire’s most recent (at the time) racist mouth-leak … sport does weird things to people.

  3. Michael Taylor

    Jack, and to think it was the Prince of Wales who acted as the go-to man on the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

    Reminds me of Menzies who, in the years leading up to WW2, sold iron to the Japanese (hence his nickname Pig-iron Bob). The unions were clearly unimpressed with all our iron going to the Japanese. Their fears were right, as the iron was returned in the form of planes and bombs.

  4. Josephus

    I hope Scotland secedes and joins the European Union and that their fellows declare UDI and join them, now they see wot brexit done to their fisheries and fresh salads etc! The EU has indeed supported intra bloc tribalism with its committee of the regions , thus the old nationalism is nibbled at both ends.
    Gibraltar is an interesting case too of course, which Madrid cannot criticise as long as it owns Ceuta and Melilla…

  5. Michael Taylor

    Josephus, I’m a vocal supporter of Scottish independence, however independence wouldn’t see them automatically accepted into the EU.

    For that to occur, among other requirements, they’d need to have their own defence force, their own currency, and a workable welfare system. Some of these will take time.

    I can’t remember the complete list of requirements (which I heard on a tour of Scotland). And yes, the No Brexit vote won quite convincingly in Scotland.

  6. Phil Pryor

    My early “beauty” disappeared suddenly at the post, so often the case, but why?? English soccer is buggered, perverted, overtaken, long ago. I gave up Brian Moore’s old match of the day as, progressively, the adverts, players, managers, owners, became foreign, bloated, corrupt. Corruption, distortion, whining, overbidding, what a rotten progress. Now huge cheats, liars, swindlers, double crossers, plantation bosses, murderers even, financial Madoff and Capone types run a peoples’ game.

  7. Lawrence S. Roberts

    Behind every great fortune there is a great crime and N.U.F.C. joining the gravy train along with a select few top flight Premium League teams of itself is not a crime. This deal has been in the offing for months and rumoured to have been held up by the rich top flight clubs not wanting another team in the lucrative European competitions.
    As a Novocastrian born and bred I take an interest in the game and don’t see a lot of local lads in the team but that’s true of most of the Premier League. I have also wondered for some years how the finances of the game work. Getting more and more out of balance like the world economy and destined to snap some time soon. In the mean time HAWAY THE LADS!

  8. wam

    a game that teaches children to cheat has no barrels without rotting contents QED.
    The people’s game is as rotten as the spectators who laud their cheating and scream abuse at opponents efforts.

  9. Brozza

    I guess NUFC has jumped on the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” bandwagon, where the only ultimate winners are the owners, ka-ching, ka-ching.

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