The Saudi takeover of Newcastle United showcases football's disregard for human rights

5 May 2020

 

Like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, you too may have some spare cash lying around to put towards the acquisition of a Premier League football team. 

 

Before proceeding with the final purchase of your club, you’ll be asked to pass the Football Association’s fit and proper persons test. As the Crown Prince, you may also be the hereditary leader of an oppressive authoritarian state with an abhorrent human rights record. Who also funds proxy wars, whist assassinating, beheading, dismembering, or imprisoning those in opposition - including your own family. 

 

If this is the case, you should be able to pass the test with relative ease. Just make sure you have no previous convictions related to fraud or corruption. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue when the rule of law doesn’t apply to you.

 

This deal would see the current owner, loathed for his parsimonious approach to funding Newcastle United, Mike Ashley, sell 80% of his stake to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF). The Public Investment Fund is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds of its kind, investing on behalf of the Government of Saudi Arabia. 

 

Fundamentally, this will decrease the state’s reliance on oil whilst also dramatically increasing Saudi Arabia’s soft power. The fund is likely to hold over $600 billion worth of assets and is chaired by the Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

 

The final 20% of Newcastle United will be taken on by British businesspersons Amanda Staveley, and brothers, Simon and David Reuben respectively. One may think it rather odd that the Crown Prince would share a significant slice of the pie with his comparatively less wealthy counterparts given his own deep pockets and evident distaste for consensus.

 

Staveley, however, is a football-friendly businesswoman from the North of England with significant connections to Middle Eastern investors, and the Reuben brothers happen to be local billionaire property developers. How much more of an image polish can you get?

 

Something to soften the blow when Newcastle United fans realise their club sits in the same investment portfolio as some notably more morally questionable state-funded regimes.

 

The Crown Prince has risen in profile over recent years; now essentially acting as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, and formally as deputy to his aged father, King Salman. Western world leaders had praised the young ruler’s reforms in diversifying the economy, and lifting sanctions preventing women from driving. Praise has since turned to criticism and disgust. 

 

Under Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has continued to pursue and fund the war in Yemen that has caused a humanitarian crisis and accusations of war crimes.

 

Shortly after Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to power, prominent members of the Saudi royal family, as well as ministers, notable religious leaders and academics were detained over their criticism of the Crown Prince, or as part of a so-called anti-corruption initiative. 

 

Critics suggest this was simply a facade that increased the Crown Prince’s totalitarian control over the kingdom, 2018 then saw perhaps the most publicised atrocity, as Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Crown Prince, was killed and dismembered by Saudi intelligence agents.

 

Amnesty International has written to the Premier League, urging them to stop the deal. The letter maintained that the Premier League was putting itself at risk of becoming a ‘patsy for those that want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that were deeply immoral’. 

 

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have labelled Saudi Arabia’s actions as sportswashing. This is effectively where a nation uses sporting events to improve its reputation and increase its soft power, particularly when it has a poor human rights record. 

 

In the past year, Saudi Arabia has received similar accusations of sportswashing with its plans to host a Grand Prix in 2023, and its hosting of a world title boxing match last December.

 

 

The concept of Middle Eastern states with abhorrent human rights records fulfilling sportswashing agendas is not entirely foreign to UK football. Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, another hereditary absolute monarchy with severe human rights violations, and member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi. 

 

The same can be said for Sheffield United and owner Abdullah bin Musa’ad, a Saudi Prince and cousin of Mohammed bin Salman. Such owners at least have a greater degree of separation, formally fulfilling the role of private investors, even if in reality it looks more like a state operation. Sportswashing has also become common in sponsorship deals with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.

 

Traditionally, football clubs have been social institutions, centred around and representative of its community, and in turn, providing an intrinsic social value to that community. Although this has somewhat diminished with globalisation and foreign investment, remnants of community hubs remain.

 

A state purchasing a football club is ludicrous and completely obliterates its traditional value, even more so with a state like Saudi Arabia.

 

Sadly, it seems that the infringement of broadcasting rights may have greater power to stop the deal than any concern over human rights. A global media group has written to the Premier League concerned over an illegal service being run from Saudi Arabia. Who are these social justice warriors transfixed on upholding the vital protection of human rights? 

 

Well, beIN Sports, the Qatari government-owned media group, and nation with its human rights issues. Saudi pirate television broadcaster beoutQ is illegally providing streaming of global sporting events like the Premier League whilst beIN sports are having to pay out around £500 million for the rights. 

 

Perhaps not so much social justice warriors than a continuation of a proxy war fuelled by the Saudi and Qatari ruling families. One shouldn’t hold their breath then.

 

Surely it can’t be acceptable that this deal is completed, but sadly it will. The UK government has ruled out intervening in the deal and preferring to leave it to the Premier League. 

 

Consequently, a Saudi funded Newcastle United that floods millions into the North East’s economy might not be a bad thing for a government that wants to hold on to surrounding constituency seats in future elections.

 

The Premier League, unsurprisingly, lacks rules preventing an actual nation-state from owning a football club, but nor would it mind seeing its international platform raised and its clubs receive increased funding even if it’s to the detriment of the Saudi Arabian people.

 

And then there are football fans. The majority are more interested in seeing their club win actual trophies, which generally requires quite a bit of money, than winning the intangible moral integrity cup. This was reflected in a poll by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, which suggested a 97% support for the potential new owners.

 

A beautiful game? Not so much anymore.

 

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