Newcastle’s Saudi deal sparks sportswashing debate

The English football club dodged a bullet when a Saudi Arabian consortium’s takeover bid collapsed. Its despotic regime has a highly questionable track record when it comes to human rights.

On the one hand, it’s a missed opportunity. An injection of resources from the Persian Gulf kingdom could potentially have catapulted Newcastle United into the elite stratosphere. The chasm that exists between successful clubs and the rest of the teams in European football is now a yawning void that can only be traversed with immense wealth. With the full might of a government’s war chest fuelled by vast oil reserves, Newcastle fans could almost see the twinkling of silverware on the horizon. 

But on the other hand, it is a bullet dodged. The price of this promised glory was the very soul of a 127-year-old athletic establishment. Newcastle fans came within touching distance of entering into a Faustian pact with a corrupt and despotic regime that tortures and dismembers dissenting journalists, imprisons women’s rights campaigners, bombs Yemeni civilians and denies basic human rights to its own people.

But few Newcastle fans seemed bothered by any of that. In April, when the deal was on track, the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, a 10 000-strong group of die-hard Magpie fans, asked its members a simple question: “Are you in favour of the proposed takeover by the Saudi consortium?” 

Almost 97% of the 3 397 members who replied said yes. In an exchange with The Independent newspaper, one fan encapsulated this feeling. “If I get to celebrate our first trophy in decades alongside my son, I won’t care who is in charge of us.”

Sport is not unique in its ability to separate the consumer from the political and cultural forces that drive its mechanisms. Fans still sing along to Michael Jackson songs, watch Kevin Spacey movies and laugh at Bill Cosby jokes despite their records concerning sexual abuse. 

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But sport is unique in its ability to serve as a cohesive force and act as a totem of identity for vast numbers of people. For football fans in the northeast of England, a part of the United Kingdom that so often feels the sharpest sting during times of national recession and economic uncertainty, the opportunity for change carried a sense of overdue justice. 

“We’ve been picked on as a region for many years and a lot of the criticism was fuelled by jealousy,” says Peter Maughan, a Newcastle fan for more than 60 years. He sits on the board of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. “We want the chance to win trophies. We don’t want to be held back. Same as other clubs who have been funded by wealthy owners and are successful. We deserve the chance.”

A poisoned chalice 

Saudi Arabia, for all its evils, offered a way out from the tentacled grasp of current owner Mike Ashley, the self-made billionaire who has held power at St James’ Park for 13 years. In that time he has been an unpopular figure. Chastening chants directed at him regularly reverberate around stadiums where Newcastle play, with the primary accusations levelled against him concerning the lack of investment in world-class talent. Since Ashley has been in charge, Newcastle has twice been relegated from the English Premier League.

“We’re desperate for a change of ownership,” Maughan says. “If I’m honest, we’ll take anyone else.”

Perhaps this is what allowed the Saudi-backed consortium, which included British businesswoman Amanda Staveley and a British-based property company, to get as close as it did. Sportswashing, the term used when a tyrannical government uses sport to enhance its reputation, is in part propagated by the loyalty and love of fans. 

Without fans to bear witness, the rugby and cricket rebel tours organised by South Africa’s apartheid regime would not have given the impression of normality existing in an abnormal society. Without rapturous applause, Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Russia’s Vladimir Putin would not have been able to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their twisted world views.

Though nations still stage world cups and global events as a means of accumulating soft power and airbrushing their image, the modern sports industrial complex has created an environment where the acquisition of private clubs is possible. What’s more, this is a proven formula for success. Manchester City in England and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in France, which are owned by Abu Dhabi and Qatar royalty, respectively, have emerged as two of the leading clubs in Europe. 

“All the trophies they have are stained with blood and if Newcastle [won] anything as a result of Saudi money, their trophies [would have been] splattered with blood,” says Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Fans have an obligation to organise and boycott. They have power in large numbers. Sport is a business because of the fans and if the stands remain empty next season after lockdown, that would send a message.”

There is a theory put forward by Maughan and others that argued for the Saudi takeover on humanitarian grounds. That by rolling out the welcome mat, Newcastle fans could have helped expose the regime’s crimes, leading to tangible policy change.

“That is hogwash,” says Worden. “There is no evidence for this claim. Saudi Arabia is a country that has very successfully denied women their human rights for many decades. There is no evidence that women’s rights are improving because of engagement with the outside world, or because it hosted the world heavyweight boxing match.” The Clash on the Dunes bout in which Anthony Joshua defeated Andy Ruiz Junior was held in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, in December despite criticism from human rights organisations.

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If the United Nations and multinational groups advocating for the advancement of human rights can’t shift Saudi policy, it is difficult to imagine that 50 000 impassioned Geordies could have done so. Human rights abuses in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did not come to a halt after the acquisition of PSG and Manchester City.

In June, 16 cross-party members of Parliament and peers wrote to the UK government calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “take an active lead” in preventing the deal from going ahead. But UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden said there would be no government intervention. “It is entirely a matter for the two parties concerned,” he said.

Hypocrisy in doing business with the Saudis 

That was unsurprising given the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Johnson’s government continues to sell military hardware that contributes to war crimes while leading publications, including The Independent and The Evening Standard, are partly owned by Saudi Arabia.

“It’s hypocrisy,” Maughan says. “Politicians and critics are now deciding that it’s time to draw a line in the sand. Those same people complaining have done deals or ignored deals with the Saudis for years.”

Though the Saudi group did not mention the Premier League directly in its official statement – instead, “an unforeseen prolonged process” was cited as a reason for the deal falling through – there was significant pressure to block the deal, which might have had an impact.

In an impassioned plea published by The Guardian newspaper in May, Hastice Cengiz, the widow of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, called on the Premier League to “make it plain that criminals and tyrants are not welcome in the most respected football competition in the world”. She cited Amnesty International’s warning that the league could become a “patsy” of despots who want to use the “glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral”. 

For whatever reason, the Premier League managed to stay out of bed with one unsavoury government, but the fact remains that major clubs are currently owned by American billionaires, a Russian oligarch, a Chinese holding company and, in Manchester City’s case, the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. In a free market that is so enticing for the world’s mega rich, the door will remain ajar for anyone able to afford the entry fee.

This is why Worden and her team at Human Rights Watch are in talks with the Premier League to establish an independent human rights advisory board. With this in place, there will be a framework to help navigate any future bids from a problematic regime to buy one of its clubs.

The athletes who perform on the field have a role to play. If a high-profile star were to refuse to sign with a club linked with an oppressive government, it would send a ripple throughout the sports world. But as of yet, that has not happened.

“Players today have less of an excuse because the information is out there,” says Ashley Gray, author of The Unforgiven: Missionaries or Mercenaries? The Untold Story of the Rebel West Indian Cricketers Who Toured Apartheid South Africa

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“Those players had little options economically and were victims both of their circumstance and the effects of their choices. Some became addicted to drugs, others lived and died in poverty. Someone like [Brazilian football icon] Neymar [who earns more than R14 million a week at PSG] should be interrogated more. He is directly contributing to sportswashing.”

In recent months, sportspeople have initiated conversations around race and the need for a rethink regarding power dynamics in sport in South Africa, the UK and elsewhere. What might happen if an athlete with enough clout decided to shift the rhetoric towards sportwashing?

Then there are the fans who have been forced to consider difficult questions about loyalty and legacy, about the purpose of a sports organisation and the price of victory. Fans like Peter Maughan, who has on display a photograph of Newcastle United lifting the trophy from the 1969 Inter-Cities Fair Cup. This was when his “boys” claimed a 6-2 victory over Hungarian club Újpesti Dózsa in a two-legged tie. He was there for the first leg at St James’ Park, when Bobby Moncur bagged a double in a 3-0 win. And he’s hardly missed a home game since. But when he speaks, you can hear the internal tug-of-war that must exist inside every fan who looks at a trophy cabinet groaning with trinkets knowing that they were paid for with blood money.

Then again, all glory in sport comes with a price tag. Maybe for some, trophies at home are worth the atrocities half a world away. That some would consider such a scenario as palatable underlines the power of sportswashing and why it continues to exist.

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