The Saudis and Sportswashing: What Newcastle’s impending takeover means

Published on 4 July 2020 at 11:43

 “Will Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who likely will soon become king of his country, use his power to bring peace to the world around him?”


This was the question posed by Washington Times writer Jamal Khashoggi in response to the appointment of Mohammed Bin Salman as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. What has followed since have been countless arrests, thousands of bombings, the triggering of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world currently, a series of diplomatic spats and hundreds of extrajudicial executions, most notably of Khashoggi himself.


As much as these are evidence enough of the violent side of the man known in the international community as MBS, his penchant has always been for soft power tactics. Since taking the effective reigns of power, the young Crown Prince has embarked upon a charm offensive, determined to present a modern, sunny view of his country to the international community.


This campaign has seen its best success in the sporting world. This has included Saudi Arabia hosting the Formula 1 Race of Champions, several boxing world title fights, and a PGA tour event.


Football ownership has long been an aim for MBS too. Recent high-profile success at Manchester City and PSG following state-backed takeovers from the UAE and Qatar respectively have showcased the potential for painting a successful image at the highest stage in the world’s largest sport. MBS had been linked with Manchester United prior to his interest in Tyneside, the global exposure gained from weekly advertising in the most viewed sports league in the world is simply too good an opportunity to avoid.


The average season ticket price for a Newcastle match stands at £811. To date, Newcastle fans remain the only supporters in the Premier League to have not been refunded for the corona-curtailed season. Every other club has either contacted or transferred money back to their fans for matches they will no longer be able to attend. For the loyal Toon Army such an approach to fan treatment is to be expected, normal procedure where such an occurrence would be considered outrage at grounds elsewhere in the league.


Any change to the status quo is understandably appealing to them, many fans are desperate at this stage to be rid of much maligned owner Mike Ashley. Ashley’s treatment of the Newcastle faithful is perhaps only outweighed by that of his workers with his Sports Direct company. Widely regarded as the worst owner in the league, many a fan waits in hope following the news that a Saudi consortium backed by Mohammed Bin Salman has agreed terms with Ashley to purchase the club. Such a deal looks likely given the only potential block lies with the Owners and Directors test administered by the Premier League.


Any issue taken with MBS here would be inevitably a criticism of his tenure as Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Given the gulf nation is a strong ally of the UK government, any such blockage would likely cause a diplomatic incident that would draw the ire of Downing Street.


The UK is Saudi Arabia’s second largest arms exporter. Last year, that totalled almost £2.94 billion in arms. Rather than abiding him the UK has been as active as any nation in supporting him. Amnesty International found a British made bomb had destroyed a civilian ceramics factory in Yemen in 2015, killing one. In such politically charged circumstances it is almost a certainty that the deal will be allowed to conclude.


So why go into football ownership?


MBS’ stock in the public eye took a hammering after Khashoggi’s butchering. The corporate world has been frosty ever since, fearing the outcry of sponsoring such an individual. As his widow, Hatice Cengiz said speaking to The Athletic “He wants legitimacy and credibility. Buying a team like Newcastle in the Premier League, in one of the most powerful countries in Europe and the world? You buy legitimacy in the international community. He’s accepted and celebrated for rescuing a struggling team. Everyone then sees everything in a different light.”


It was found last year in a report by Agnes Callamard, Human Rights expert and Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings for the UN, that individual liability lay at the crown prince’s door. This is also the view of the CIA.


As Khashoggi entered the Turkish Embassy in Istanbul to collect marriage papers he was met by a 15-man death squad who had flown out covertly that day from Riyadh. A struggle ensued that saw Khashoggi chopped up and reportedly dissolved in acid. Having initially denied it happened, Saudi Arabia backtracked to say that it did, before going further to say it was their fault but not that of MBS.


In 2014 when Houthi rebel forces in Yemen backing an ex-president took control of the capital of the country an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia incurred on Yemeni territory, forcing a blockade on imports that has left millions on the brink of famine.


According to Human Rights Watch, 9872 had died as of 2018 in a conflict marked by forced disappearances, torture and unlawful airstrikes on school busses and weddings among others. Years after it began, the situation has yet to improve while the lives of citizens have only gotten worse.


MBS has also seen his own personal stock among world leaders decline in recent years.


As well as being directly linked to Khashoggi’s murder, he also ordered the detaining of hundreds of the country’s richest people in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. 17 were hospitalised and one died. That many of those detained were in fact political opponents of MBS did little to change the view he was as autocratic as those who preceded him.


In 2017 the Lebanon PM Saad Hariri was detained during a normal visit to Riyadh. His phone was confiscated, and he was forced to read a resignation letter live on Saudi TV. In 2018 MBS allowed women the right to drive as part of a supposed liberalisation of the deeply religious state. However, while western nations celebrated the new reforms, many of the feminist activists that advocated for it were arrested before it passed and remain jailed today.


Criticised on this by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, trade with Canada was promptly frozen and its ambassador in Riyadh expelled. Such treatment of his own citizens, allies and other sovereign leaders has changed the view of the initial reformist wave that Bin Salman had rode in on.


Sportswashing is defined as the hosting of a sporting event or owning of a team as a means for a country to improve its reputation, particularly if it has a poor record on human rights.


In speaking to the Guardian, Amnesty International director Kate Allen stated that this was being used as an opportunity to rebrand the image a country may have ““Instead of actually tackling abuse, many countries with atrocious human rights records have a habit of enlisting expensive PR firms – and football ownership can be another form of PR.”


This has previously worked for other Gulf nations. Qatar and UAE have enjoyed the benefit of sporting success on their brand, with the former due to host the 2022 World Cup. Current Premier League surprise package Sheffield United are owned by another member of Bin Salman’s family, all be it one without the same political power or baggage.


The investment for Bin Salman is relatively small compared to much larger projects they are currently engaged in, and one does wonder if such a move is more for branding than anything else.


What has occurred since the takeover offer is the unfortunate defending of the deal from passionate Newcastle fans keen to see the Ashley era end. What-aboutery and false equivalencies with Manchester City have abounded, as though the crimes of the Saudi state are in any way comparable to other nations.


To support a club is to subscribe to its values. For Newcastle fans to support a club owned by such a tyrant would be to support a regime responsible for heaping misery upon millions. Such crimes then become ‘sportswashed’ as the focus becomes success on the football pitch rather than the crimes that came before it. Morally and financially abiding atrocities in the pursuit of trophies. This is as complicit as any sponsor that stands by MBS.


To support MBS-led Newcastle is to support MBS-caused crimes.


This is crucially different to current support of Ashley, for example. Bad as Ashley’s track record with employees is, Sports Direct are nonetheless a private company with little duty to public wellbeing. They don’t have a say on UK foreign policy. They don’t make spending decisions between helping Grenfell victims and paying Dominic Cummings to drive around visiting castles to check his eyesight. 


Mohammed Bin Salman is the Saudi state.


The states’ actions then become inextricably linked to Newcastle as a club. Well meaning fans that just want to see their club do well end up being used as pawns, effectively acting as a front, or at worst apologists for the horrendous acts that any future club success would stem from.


This sportswashing can already be seen at other clubs. An International Labour organisation found that 8 of 19 organisations involved in 2022 Qatar World Cup preparations have employees working over 72 hours a week. This a product of the controversial Kafala System that ties employee to employer and has been likened to modern-day slavery. A generous sponsor of Bayern Munich, its chairman Karl-Heinze Rummenigge claimed that football had somehow improved working conditions in Qatar.


The worst said by rival fans about Manchester City’s owners is the money they allow the club to spend year on year on the world’s best players. No mention of the country’s continued jailing of free speech activists or involvement in that same Saudi coalition in Yemen.


It is often said that sport and politics should not mix. This is often used by those too ignorant to face up to the reality that the two are intertwined. The presence of these states in football ownership make it a morally worse place. For all the money that has flooded football making it more entertaining than ever, at what point do we question where that money comes from? Moreover, at what point do we say enough is enough?


It is not the first time such questions have been asked, but results on the pitch conquer all. Momentary focus on the leaders’ action subside in lieu of the next cup run or new centre forward.


This moral fallacy was summed up succinctly by Jamal Khashoggi just weeks before his own death. “We should not need to be reminded of the value of human life” he wrote for the Washington Post.


And yet too often we do.

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