The UK could bring down the Saudi dictator. Instead, it props him up
ANALYSIS: The UK’s role in the sale of Newcastle United shows we are little more than a laundry for dirty money
The story of how and why the Saudi regime ended up owning Newcastle United football club – with the active help of the British government – starts some years ago.
In 2018, the Saudi regime was in real trouble. Barack Obama’s fracking boom had made the US self-sufficient in oil, depriving Riyadh of its biggest market and driving down global petroleum prices. Government funds were suffering and the House of Saud was forced to introduce a controversial 5% sales tax, which increased to 15% in 2020.
In 2017, attempts to slash wages and benefits for public employees – who make up around two-thirds of all workers in the Gulf state – were abandoned due to fear of civil unrest. Under its ‘Vision 2030’, the country was keen to offload some of that payroll on to the private sector by diversifying its economy, but that required foreign investment, which had fallen from a peak of 8.5% of Saudi GDP in 2009 to just 0.2% in 2017.
For decades, the country has talked about diversifying its economy beyond oil. But it’s much harder to sustain a gruesome dictatorship in an economy that relies on taxing incomes and consumption than in one that’s pumped up with mineral wealth.
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And, anyway, attempts to attract foreign investment were damaged by another approach the regime had taken to raising funds. In November 2017, nearly 400 of the country’s richest businessmen had been taken to the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where, according to numerous accounts, they were hung up by their feet and beaten until they handed over details of their offshore bank accounts, which were then emptied, bringing more than $100bn into the government’s coffers.
Those sorts of stories don’t exactly create what neoliberal bureaucrats like to call ‘an atmosphere conducive to business’. Although the British media largely copied-and-pasted the Saudi regime’s line that this was a crackdown on corruption, the rest of the world’s press was less gullible, reporting it as a “shakedown”.
And then there was the country’s involvement in the war in Yemen, which, as well as costing tens of billions of dollars, was starting to do real reputational damage. In 2018, a United Nations report accused the Saudi-led coalition of a series of war crimes – including mass rape, the bombing of civilian areas, forcing children as young as eight to fight as soldiers, and torture.
As the economic difficulties intensified, the House of Saud – the ruling royal family that has only held the country together for a century because of its vast oil income – sensed a political crisis. The government launched vicious attacks on dissenters, including mass executions of those who spoke out. Meanwhile, Britain’s papers largely focused on a move to allow women to drive, calling crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman a “moderate” and a “reformer”.
Mohammed Bin Salman visited London in March 2018 amid a huge public relations drive. The UK was smeared with posters of his face announcing that “he’s bringing change to Saudi Arabia”. The British government rolled out the red carpet and the pro-regime media rolled on their backs to have their bellies tickled. “Britain should welcome Saudi Arabia’s pragmatic Crown Prince,” wrote the Telegraph, which has since talked up the dictatorship as a tourist destination.
For British officials, though, there was another matter at stake – they hoped that a much mooted sale of some of the shares in the Saudi state oil company, Aramco, to finance the country’s economic transition plans, would be done through the London Stock Exchange. It later was – as the stock exchange brags on its website, it has hosted “more IPOs [Initial Public Offerings] from the region than any other stock exchange globally”.
But on 2 October 2018, Mohammed Bin Salman slipped off his tightrope between ‘progressive reformer’ abroad and ‘crusher of growing dissent’ at home. Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was summoned to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed and chopped into pieces. He was one of 150 Saudi citizens known to have been executed that year.
Western governments, media conglomerates and businesses were forced to pause their efforts to cover up for Mohammed Bin Salman’s violent habits, and his attempts to woo foreign capital were once more curtailed.
And so Riyadh reached for the public relations playbook.
Greenwashing to sportswashing
If you’re on Twitter, you may well have seen the Saudi government’s somewhat extraordinary attempts at greenwashing. Widely promoted tweets include adverts for a new city, ‘Neom’, which it claims to be building in the north-west of the country. As one of many flashy promotional videos says, “ecosystems of abundant plant, animal and ever enriching marine life will thrive as never before” in a city it says will be “zero carbon”.
Meanwhile, the Saudi Green Initiative has a long-running partnership with the UK’s Independent newspaper, which regularly publishes advertorial content bigging up Saudi Arabia’s eco credentials. A recent example promoted attempts to reintroduce the Arabian leopard to the country.
Such a collaboration shouldn’t come as a surprise: around the same time as Riyadh launched its global PR campaign, it is thought to have bought up around 30% of the Independent and Evening Standard.
It was also in 2018 that rumours started spreading that the House of Saud was keen to buy a football club in England’s Premier League, another key tool for oligarchs to launder their reputations. The premiership is, after all, a vast global brand, with its matches played on screens around the world.
At first, the club under discussion was Manchester United. But when, in April 2020, a consortium including Saudi Arabia’s national investment fund submitted a request to be assessed as the fit and proper owner of a premiership club, it was Newcastle United FC that the fund had in mind.
That test was to prove tricky – not because of the regime’s record on torture, rape, child soldiers or murder, but because the Saudis have a habit of pirating Qatari-owned sports TV rights, a step too far for football’s bosses.
And so, just as it did 100 years ago to help the al Saud family secure its despotic dominance of so much of the Arabian Peninsula, the British government stepped in again. It’s important to remember that Saudi Arabia only exists because the brutal and ultra-conservative leader Abdulaziz al Saud (aka Ibn Saud) managed to secure British support in the 1920s and ’30s to conquer different regions of the peninsula.
As my colleagues have revealed today – and despite Boris Johnson’s denials – Britain’s trade minister went out of his way to help the Saudis and the English Premier League navigate the difficult turf of how to conclude that a notorious dictatorship is a fit and proper owner of Newcastle United.
This might all seem a little odd. As well as running Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman controls Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest company, which has almost a thousand times the turnover of Newcastle United. Why would this master of the universe care about a tiddling little team on the Tyne?
The answer, as with so much in Britain, lies in empire. British football clubs have fans all over the world. Newcastle’s black and white stripes are worn loyally by kids on almost every continent. And if you’re an oligarch state with reputation problems, seeking to assert your power on the world stage, then buying into that affection is very tempting indeed.
And so, just like so many other British institutions, premiership teams have realised they can use their global fame to launder the reputations of the crooks of the world.
But just like the Saudi regime, all of this is contingent. Football clubs don’t need to be pawns for the oligarchs of the world. Some of the most globally successful teams are co-ops. Media outlets don’t have to parrot the powerful (you can donate to openDemocracy here). And if the British government put as much effort into delivering a zero carbon transition as it does to attracting Saudi oil, then we could step back and watch the dictator fall.
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