A league of their own-goal: Why Saudi Arabia's Newcastle takeover has been a disaster
The richest soccer club in the world - Newcastle United - is off to Saudi Arabia for some warm-weather winter training. There are plenty of other places in the sun the Newcastle players could go in January, of course. Spain and Portugal are very nice at this time of year, I have heard, and considerably nearer. But when a struggling team has been given a shot at footballing glory by the petrol millions of new owners in the Middle East then some payback is required.
"The Magpies" can expect to rack up the air miles flying to and from Riyadh in the coming years as this exercise in soft power plays out. The use of soccer, golf and motor racing by Saudi Arabia to bolster its reputation is known as 'sportswashing', a term coined by Amnesty International for any regime which uses sport to cleanse itself of its toxic human rights reputation.
With Newcastle continuing to languish in the Premier's League's relegation zone three months after a £305m takeover by the country's Public Investment Fund (PIF), there’s not a lot to shout about.
"To begs to be asked: how will a photograph of MBS meeting with the Newcastle manager Eddie and the team will go down back home?"
Expect the washing-machine setting to be on 'Easy Care'; a photo-op for new manager Eddie Howe and his players with the PIF governor and NUFC chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan, perhaps. Yet, as the trophies roll in – as they surely will with a fortune ten times that of Manchester City to call upon – then expect the dial to switch to 'Full Spin'.
To that end, the country's de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), will be rolled out to bask in the reflected glory of the glistening silverware. Over the years, we have become used to sportsmen and women fielding questions from human rights campaigners when they choose to compete in Saudi Arabia.
Lately, it has been the golfers who have faced accusations that by their very participation they are supporting a discredited regime. To begin with, campaign groups like Amnesty called on sports stars to boycott Saudi Arabia, as happened to South Africa during the apartheid era. When it became clear that most were going to go anyway, they were instead asked to speak out about human rights abuses while they were there.
Unsurprisingly, given the fate of dissidents like Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who criticised the regime while abroad, there has been a reluctance to pile in when in the country itself.
Instead, we are left with the usual response of competitors, which is that the jailing of women's rights activists or bombing Yemen back to the Dark Ages does not really apply to them.
There have been notable exceptions, of course, such as the golfer Rory McIlroy who stayed away, saying: "It's the human rights, stupid".
But most have stuck to the same line adopted by Irish golfer Shane Lowry, a former British Open champion, who said last week ahead of the $5m Saudi International event: "At the end of the day for me, I'm not a politician, I’m a professional golfer."
This has become the norm; increasing numbers of sportsmen and women who are prepared to take the Saudi riyal, say nothing and go away.
The takeover of Newcastle United by the country's sovereign wealth fund will put 'sportswashing' into a whole different cleaning cycle. The 130-year-old club is one of the oldest in the English league and is associated with a string of famous names such as Jackie Milburn, Malcolm McDonald, Kevin Keegan, Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer.
That is some reputation for MBS, who also happens to be the PIF president, to trade on - the same MBS who the CIA concluded had 'most likely' ordered the brutal murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the country's Turkish consulate, for which he earned the unfortunate moniker "Mr Bone Saw". However, MBS denies involvement.
Since he became the desert kingdom's ruler in 2017 he has overseen a bombing campaign of Yemen which has left 233,000 dead, and 2.3m children acutely malnourished. He has also jailed a dozen or so women's rights activists, some of whom like Loujain al-Hathloul, claimed they were tortured behind bars. Additionally, the number of executions soared to 185 in 2019, with foreigners accused of drugs offences making up around half the cases, and increased in 2021 after a dip in 2020 of the executions.
A temporary ban preventing Newcastle United’s Saudi ownership from signing up sponsors linked to the kingdom was lifted on Tuesday.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) December 16, 2021
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To begs to be asked: how will a photograph of MBS meeting with the Newcastle manager Eddie and the team will go down back home?
The Toon fans will not mind, of course. They have been wrapping themselves in Arab headscarves and waving the green flag since the controversial takeover went through. Among the wider football-following public it will be sneered at, and perhaps worse will come.
Newcastle has become the team everyone else wants to beat and see relegated, a sentiment foreshadowed by the crisis meeting the other 19 clubs had with the Premier League when the takeover was unexpectedly announced. That is because the money available to the North-East side will make it harder for the better teams to qualify for the Champions League in Europe, and easier for the worse ones to be relegated.
"The second half of the season has the potential to be one huge exercise in schadenfreude as "The Magpies" (it is hoped) slide towards the abyss and the Saudi owners end up with eggs on their faces"
Saudi Arabia had also just spent four years pirating the Premier League coverage across the Middle East which beIN Sports, based in regional rival Qatar, had paid top dollar for. By stealing the intellectual property of the Premier League, you are in effect stealing from the clubs whose business model is predicated on maximum income from TV rights, which many of the smaller clubs need to survive especially during a pandemic when there are no fans in stadiums.
So it is understandable that there is some residual bitterness at how the deal was waved through the minute the piracy was stopped and, let us be honest about it, envy at the eye-watering £260bn fortune available to spend on players, financial fair play rules admitted.
The second half of the season has the potential to be one huge exercise in schadenfreude as "The Magpies" (it is hoped) slide towards the abyss and the Saudi owners end up with eggs on their faces as the best players scramble towards the exit door.
If that happens, the sound of the 19 other clubs, as well as human rights campaigners, celebrating will be something to behold.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood
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