Jonathan Fenton-Harvey reports on the dismay of both football fans and human rights campaigners as Prince Mohammad bin Salman al Saud becomes the latest to ‘sportswash’ his reputation.
“Newcastle United has been turned from something that was a beacon for the community to something of a stale, asinine business,” said Neil, a committed Newcastle United fan, referring to the era under Mike Ashley, whose negligent ownership and scant ambitions have left the English football club uncultivated. “The sense of hope and pride we once had has eroded.”
English Premier League has become increasingly commercialized, with billionaire owners such as Roman Abramovich and Stan Kroenke driving increased financial competitiveness into the iconic game. Yet as money is an overriding factor, with such investment come those from questionable backgrounds.
Newcastle United, a once stronger team with legendary players like Alan Shearer, Gary Speed and Peter Beardsley, already struggled under the current ownership; twice relegated to the Championship division, their supporters were left disenfranchised.
Then comes in Saudi Arabia. The ambitious takeover bid by its megalomaniac Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman al Saud (MbS), who forcibly seized power within the Saudi Kingdom and escalated its totalitarianism while crushing opponents of his ambitions, has not come without controversy.
The Premier League has attracted greater investment from Gulf states to leverage their own soft power. The United Arab Emirates’ wealthy royal family member Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan made the historic purchase of Manchester City in 2008, transforming the club from a mid-level Premier League side to one of the world’s most formidable teams.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi’s investments in various clubs have promoted world-leading Emirati companies, including Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, effectively using football to promote a positive image. This effectively glamourizes the United Arab Emirates, concealing the ultra-authoritarian and destructive regional foreign policy of this tiny zealous state.
Despite a rejected £4 billion takeover bid of legendary club Manchester United, bin Salman has not retreated. Saudi Arabia has taken notes from its Gulf neighbour’s proactive steps, as the Crown Prince seeks to turn Newcastle United into a world beating side, mirroring Sheikh Mansour’s successes with Manchester City. In the past year, the Kingdom hosted prominent sporting events including the heavyweight world championship boxing rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr, and last year’s Crown Jewel event with the World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE).
Like with the UAE, such fixtures aim to formulate a progressive, modernised mask for the apparently ‘new’ Saudi kingdom, as MbS seeks to move away from its traditional ultra-orthodox foundations which garnered its reputation of austere barbarity, where women were long treated like cattle and dissidents were punished in cruel fashion.
Some media outlets have drooled over how MbS’ economic prowess could transform Newcastle, given that he governs the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) worth an estimated £260 billion, while his family’s estimated wealth is £1.1 trillion. For many Newcastle fans, desperate to see their club resurrected and even flourishing like never before in its history, MbS’ takeover has come as a blessing.
“Obviously, we are aware of what the price on this ticket is, in some ways. Association with Saudi Arabia inevitably brings criticism in some areas,” said Neil, the Newcastle fan. “But the takeover isn’t so much about pumping billions in and bring global stars but more so about the sense of a fanbase getting their club back.”
Former Newcastle forward Faustino Asprilla lauded MbS’ attempted takeover at the club, echoing the fans’ loathing of its owners, seeing the Saudi Crown Prince as a remedy for Ashley’s forsaking of the club.
After murdering dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in cold blood in Istanbul in October 2018, taking over Newcastle is MbS’ renewed attempt to salvage his image, which this flagrant act sabotaged. Even large media organisations, which previously depicted MbS as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s leap into the 21st century, struggled to justify their positive portrayals of the Crown Prince after Khashoggi’s murder.
The current receptivity for this takeover bolsters Saudi Arabia’s PR-bought mirage for Western eyes, glossing over the savage abuses that bin Salman has superintended. Beneath this glamourous transaction lay the bodies of thousands of Yemeni civilians, who have suffered Saudi Arabia’s bombing of markets, schools and hospitals during the Riyadh-led war, of which bin Salman himself was the architect. As are the 37 people, including 3 juveniles, who were tortured and executed in a single day. As are the women’s rights activists, who languish in Saudi jails after pushing for gender reforms, for which MbS himself dishonestly took credit. And the list goes on.
Amnesty International therefore slammed MbS’ attempted takeover, highlighting it as an attempt to ‘sportswash’ the kingdom’s ongoing repression. Even some Newcastle fans, who are committed to seeing their club flourish, have reservations about the reputational costs of this move.
“Though Newcastle would gain huge financial benefits and we would be able to afford great players, some of us feel that Saudi Arabia is not the best choice for our club,” Matthew, another Newcastle supporter, told the Byline Times. “It is not good for our club to be associated with that country if you consider their terrible human rights and how they treat people.”
Capitalizing on Newcastle’s financial frustrations help surge Saudi Arabia’s global image as a progressive force. Both Newcastle and the Saudi Crown Prince have the same goal of revitalizing their broken images. However, giving the dark associations with MbS’ abuses, it shows how money can trump values.
what the papers don’t say
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