openDemocracyUK: Opinion

We must realise the threat posed by Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle ‘sportswashing’

Sportswashing launders the reputations of thugs and despots, but it also diminishes our democratic institutions

Nicholas McGeehan
12 October 2021, 10.06am
Jubilant Newcastle United fans hold a Saudi flag outside St James' Park whilst celebrating the club's Saudi takeover
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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

And so, after many months of wrangling, a Saudi Arabian-led consortium has finally taken control of Newcastle United. ‘Howay the lads,’ as they say in those parts.

The consortium, which is led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), a sovereign wealth fund chaired by the dictatorial and all-powerful Crown Prince, Mohamed bin Salman, has offered the Premier League “legally binding assurances” that Saudi Arabia won’t control the club, despite taking an 80% share in it. The consortium’s frontwoman, Amanda Staveley, whose investment firm is one of two other parties in the takeover, has repeatedly claimed that “our partner is not the Saudi state, our partner is PIF.” The reality – as can be established by anyone with an internet connection – is that Saudi Arabia is in full control of the club.

The seemingly never-ending saga had nothing to do with whether or not Mohamed bin Salman, known as MBS, is an appropriate person to control one of the UK’s biggest and most well-supported football clubs. In the end, it was always all about the money. Once Saudi Arabia agreed to crack down on the pirating of Premier League content, which it had for years failed to tackle due to a petty regional spat with Qatar, all that was required was for everybody involved to side-step the MBS-shaped elephant in the room, and to agree that black was white.

For football and for the UK in particular, the takeover is but a microcosm of a far wider and deeper issue of how dark money has taken hold of the island. As journalist Simon Kuper so eloquently wrote in his assessment of the takeover for the Financial Times last week, “anyone surprised that Britain welcomes such shady money hasn’t been paying attention.” Suspicion is further aroused by the BBC reporting that the UK government is refusing to divulge what it told the Premier League about the takeover because it could “harm” relations with Saudi Arabia.

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Whether that’s due to the more than £20bn in arms sales made by Britain to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war in Yemen in 2015, as calculated by Campaign Against Arms Trade, remains unknown.

Still, the takeover and the chicanery that made it possible raise all sorts of questions around state ownership and the rather fuzzy concept of ‘sportswashing’. Although there is no definitive description of sportswashing, it is largely understood to be when an individual, group, corporation or nation-state uses sport to cleanse its image globally – and there is general consensus that it is a bad thing. As such, it’s a rather useful term to trot out whenever a notably abusive state decides to get involved in professional sport for political, rather than sporting or commercial ends.

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Sportswashing sceptics (who are often supporters of a club accused of the practice) claim that buying a football club actually shines a light on your bad behaviour and deny that sportswashing exists. This ignores the fact that a well-directed spotlight can bring significantly more positive than negative media coverage and that the aim is to achieve a net reputational benefit, not to erase bad publicity altogether.

Bin Salman certainly needs a reputational bump in light of the ongoing fallout from the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018. A US intelligence report released in February 2021 concluded that MBS had approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi, who had criticised Saudi policies and questioned the validity of MBS’s much-vaunted reform agenda. Saudi Arabia rejected the report’s findings and has denied Bin Salman was involved in Khashoggi’s assassination.

While Khashoggi’s murder hasn’t made it impossible to attract the foreign investment MBS needs to realise his domestic political goals, it certainly hasn’t helped. So, if we accept the premise that the Newcastle deal is in large part aimed at the reputational rehabilitation of MBS, then it is a transactional relationship, which begs the question, what will be the cost to the city and its residents?

In attempting to answer that question we can, as Jonathan Silver, a senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield, articulated so well in a recent article in Tribune, look to the experience of another northern English city. Manchester City Football Club has been under the control of the United Arab Emirates since 2008, when it was bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group. Saudi Arabia’s very similar investment in Newcastle, Silver argues, “reflects the growing entanglement of a form of Middle Eastern state capitalism into the UK that should worry us all”, adding that “it follows that these flows of petro-wealth will soon spill out from the football club and begin to reshape the city itself and its political sphere”. We are already seeing signs of this in Newcastle, to add to the wealth of evidence from Manchester.

For local press, avoiding criticism of a local club’s owners pleases fans and keeps advertisers happy

These signs are perhaps most obvious in the response of Newcastle’s political class. Prior to the takeover, the chief executive of Newcastle Council, Pat Ritchie, wrote to the Premier League to urge it to allow the takeover to go ahead on the basis of its “transformative” potential. She made no mention of potential drawbacks or human rights concerns. In the hours leading up to the official announcement of the takeover on 7 October, the leader of Newcastle City Council, Nick Forbes, told BBC Radio Newcastle of his delight that the Premier League had ruled that the Private Investment Fund is separate from the Saudi state, even though factually it’s not. After the takeover, Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah tweeted out a link to her 2018 criticism of the UK government’s response to the Khashoggi murder, saying “if you think the #nufctakeover will stop me criticising the Saudi Regime you don't know me and you don't know #Newcastle.”

Yet, the rhetoric rings hollow. Despite previously calling MBS “the autocratic ruler of a murderous state”, Onwurah was prominent among the large group of MPs who wrote letters to the Premier League criticising its handling of the takeover, after the consortium initially pulled out of the deal in July 2020. This subsequent political pressure, encouraged and orchestrated by Staveley, was obviously influential, and two members of the consortium, including Staveley’s husband, thanked Onwurah publicly after the takeover went through.

Where local press is concerned, avoiding criticism of the local club’s owners pleases fans and keeps advertisers happy, but in leaving critical coverage to the easily decried metropolitan elite, it fails the communities it is supposed to serve. In Manchester, it has largely been independent publications like The Meteor that have held the council to account for its dealings with Abu Dhabi. The more mainstream local outlets weren’t interested when council leader Richard Leese refused a request from Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to take a stand on the UAE’s grisly human rights record, calling the UAE “exemplary business partners”, or when former council chief executive Howard Bernstein was appointed as a ​​strategic development advisor to Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi-controlled parent company, City Football Group, upon his retirement from the council.

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What we have seen in Manchester, and what we are now witnessing in Newcastle, is that the purchase and generous financing of a football club results in influential groups of people becoming invested in the success of your project. The investment can be political, in the case of MPs and councillors who don’t want to be voted out of office for going against what supporters want and who see opportunities for the regeneration of dilapidated areas of the city. (Manchester’s Abu Dhabi-financed regeneration resulted in the construction of a load of luxury flats that have reportedly exacerbated inequality in a city facing a homelessness crisis.) The investment can also be commercial, in the cases of the businesses that will profit from the petrodollars poured into the city or the newspapers and broadcasters that fear a backlash if they delve too deeply into allegations of the new owners’ involvement in torture, or war crimes, or child slavery, or even pre-meditated murder.

What makes football slightly different from other types of business investment is, of course, the emotional investment in the success of the project. This is most obvious in the adoration that fanbases heap on generous owners, but, of course, it affects the cities’ media and political class for the simple reason that, very often, local journalists and politicians are fans too. As such, they are just as susceptible to what cognitive anthropologist Martha Newson has described as “a visceral sense of oneness” with their team and fellow supporters.

Sportswashing is a term that we need to flesh out in more detail, but it's important to focus not only on its ability to burnish the reputation of serial human rights abusers, but also its capacity to corrupt our own democratic institutions, leading them to fall silent when we need them most.

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