The Arabian peninsula to the North East of England: a story of sporting immorality

Mohammed Bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The prospective Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is a story that lays bare the corruption, inequality and general moral vacuum that is the world of high level international sporting business. 

Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, wants to buy Newcastle United in a £300m deal dominated by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. This is sportswashing. Saudi Arabia intend to use Newcastle United, a well-supported, widely liked Premier League football club, to improve their public reputation. 

The outrageousness of this situation is unparalleled. Bin Salman is not a bored billionaire. This is a man with blood on his hands and the sovereign wealth of a nation behind him: the largest economy in the Middle East and the eighteenth largest in the world. 

Mohammed Bin Salman runs a theocratic dictatorship that murdered and dismembered a New York Times journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in October 2018. The CIA and UN have confirmed that the Crown Prince personally ordered this murder.

For a moment, forget the problematic fact that a country essentially wants to own a football club. Forget that this is comparable to the Netherlands, or Mexico, or Turkey owning Norwich or Sunderland. Or perhaps Boris Johnson announcing plans to buy Atletico Madrid. 

Because it is not comparable. Saudi Arabia is responsible for numerous well documented human rights abuses. Until 2017, women were not allowed to drive. Homosexuality is punishable by flogging. The country averages around 150 executions annually. The kafala system employed in Saudi Arabia directly contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.     

‘I would love to see it happen and I’d love to be part of it,’ Steve Bruce, the Newcastle United manager told Sky Sports. ‘If it’s good for Newcastle and the club are going to try and compete with these [top] teams, to be part of it would be great. If it happens, I’d be delighted.’

Bruce’s comments lay bare the fundamental issue with this deal: it aligns the interests of a brutal dictatorship with those of a football club, its employees and its fans. 

Supporting Newcastle United becomes, in the Saudi plans, covert support for their regime. The club itself becomes the vehicle of a violent and oppressive dictatorship. As the case of Manchester City has proved, some of this support is often not particularly covert either. 

Such is the ridiculously tribal nature of football; it is not uncommon to find City fans take to social media to justify the human rights record of their owners. Indeed, whilst it must be noted that Saudi misinformation campaigns on social media are highly advanced, the reaction of some Newcastle fans online to journalists such as Miguel Delaney exposing this story has been derisory and dismissive.   

Newcastle United ground
St James’ Park, Newcastle

For Newcastle fans, it truly is out of the Michael-Ashley-funded-frying-pan and into the fires of Saudi dictatorship. It is an unenviable position. Amnesty International recently concluded that Saudi Arabia intended to use the ‘glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral.’ Likewise, the Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of using football ‘as a PR tool to distract from its abysmal human rights record.’

Many have pointed out that Saudi Arabia has invested in multiple successful international businesses without such an uproar, and that a member of the Saudi ruling family enjoys total ownership of Sheffield United. Many have also pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of the British government, which pays continual lip service to Human Rights having spent decades selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. 

According to Campaign Against Arms Trade, the London based BAE Systems sold £15bn worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia between 2015 to 2019. Such weaponry has been used in the Saudi war against Yemen, one of the worlds worst humanitarian crises. In June last year the court of appeal suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing ‘historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law.’ The UK government is currently working to overhaul this judgement.  

In the face of such hypocrisy, many Newcastle fans have understandably asked: why should we not be able deal with these people when our own government can?     

Sport must be better. We have a right to demand more. We have a right to hold people to some degree of moral decency. Where do we draw the line? Granted, the UK government has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, but that is a silly argument. Do we really want the UK government to be our moral benchmark? 

Those opposed to Saudi Arabia have welcomed WTO intervention in the deal over the Saudi streaming website beoutQ. The WTO has announced that the Saudis broke international law in support of the pirate TV and streaming service, which sought to undermine the Qatari network beIN sports. 

According to beIN sports managing director: ‘we have been warning of the very real commercial consequences of beoutQ’s theft of world sport and entertainment for almost two years now – yet the piracy continues with impunity every day and represents an existential threat to the economic model of the sports and entertainment industry.’

Such impunity seems set to end. Indeed, the connections to piracy may well mean that the Saudi consortium fail to pass the mandatory Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test. The Saudis and Qatar are currently embroiled in an ongoing diplomatic crisis: beoutQ appears to have been supported to consciously undermine beIN sports, which signed a three year TV deal with the Premier League worth £500m and due to expire in 2022. 

 Yousef al-Obaidly, the chief executive of beIN, wrote to the chairmen of Premier League clubs in April saying, ‘the potential acquirer of Newcastle United [has] caused huge damage to your club’s and the Premier League’s commercial revenues.’

Also, on the board of the Qatar-funded Paris Saint-Germain, Obaidly went on to add: ‘The legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward. When the Premier League season recommences in the coming months, all of the league’s broadcasters’ content will continue to be readily and illegally available via the IPTV streaming functionality on the beoutQ set-top-boxes which were sold in significant quantities in Saudi Arabia and the broader Mena [Middle East and North Africa] region.’  

2020 has been a strange and surreal year. If it is indeed a streaming controversy that stops a Saudi takeover, then the irony will only deepen. No, the Premier League will be forced to say, we don’t mind the murdering and the abuse of fundamental human rights, but that online streaming business you’re up to, that deprives us of revenue, so clear off. 

How disappointing that football can have allowed itself to get into such a state, but you would be brave to bet against the deal going through. Sportswashing is real and it is here to stay unless we do anything about it. 

Indeed, sixteen cross party peers and MPs have written to the government to express concern that the takeover is a vehicle to distract the world from Mohammed Bin Salman and his regime’s human rights record. They have urged the government to take an ‘active lead’ in preventing sportswashing. 

Ultimately, it is likely to be the government’s response that determines the outcome of this case. In a world run by money there appears to be precious little room for quibbles about morality. We can and must do more. Whether the UK government will have the backbone to do so appears questionable.    

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