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Saudi Sportswashing and the Silence of the Fans

As Saudi Arabia prepares to play two ‘home’ international matches in Newcastle this weekend, Adrian Goldberg asks if Saudi money has muzzled outrage at the Kingdom’s well-documented human rights abuses

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When Saudi Arabia’s men’s football team step out on the pitch to play two friendly matches at Newcastle United’s St James’s Park over the next few days, the results won’t really matter.  

Critics say the despotic regime of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) will already have won, simply by virtue of being allowed to host such prestigious games at a venerated English football stadium.

In the words of campaigner John Hird, the Saudis “are using the city as a giant billboard” in the hope of making the public see it as a major player in global sports, rather than a serial abuser of human rights.

Hird, founder of NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing, is talking to me outside the entrance to the ground, where statues of local heroes Alan Shearer and Sir Bobby Robson stand sentry over the club’s offices.

He views Saudi Arabia’s adoption of Newcastle as a ‘home from home’ for its national side as the latest step in the process of ‘normalising’ its involvement in English football.

Hird’s eyes blaze with indignation as he asks rhetorically: “Can you imagine if Iran asked if they could play two friendlies at Newcastle. Or North Korea? It’s just ridiculous.” 

The difference, of course, is that unlike those two international pariahs, the UK has friendly relations with the Riyadh regime. 

The British Government sells arms to Saudi Arabia, relies on its oil imports, and in an era of increasingly fraught geopolitics, has even invited MBS on a state visit, despite his apparent complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

John Hird

“How he has he got back into the international fold?” asks Hird in a thick Geordie brogue, before rapidly answering his own question. “Mostly because of money and promises of investment.”

When the Saudi Public Investment Fund (or ‘PIF’) bought Newcastle United in 2021, the Premier League’s concerns over its close links with the MBS Government were soothed by “legally binding assurances” that it wasn’t an arm of the state.

Those claims, always flimsy, now look nothing more than an elaborate fiction.

Newcastle’s chairman, Yasir al Rumayya, was described as “a sitting minister of the Saudi Government” with “sovereign immunity” in documents lodged by the PIF in a US lawsuit.   

It’s surely no coincidence that Newcastle’s second kit this season (as well as last year’s third kit) are strikingly similar to those worn by the Saudi national team.  

Then there’s the PIF itself, which is chaired by MBS.

Hird says “it’s not just a dictatorship that runs Saudi Arabia. It’s a royal dictatorship. And who’s the head guy? It’s Mohammed bin Salman. Ipso facto, he controls Newcastle United.

“These binding assurances, saying that the Saudi state wouldn’t control Newcastle United, need to be revisited, because they’re obviously not worth the paper they’re written on.”

The charge sheet against Saudi Arabia is exhaustive. 

According to Amnesty International, individuals are targeted for seeking freedom of expression, and sentenced to death following unfair trials. Political prisoners are tortured; women, migrant workers and minorities are denied their human rights. There’s also strong evidence of Saudi atrocities in its war against Yemen.

Yet Hird has found it hard to get a hearing for his campaign. That’s partly because of the transformational impact of Saudi riches on a club renowned for its perennial under-achievement.  

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Last season, under the guidance of manager Eddie Howe, Newcastle enjoyed its best campaign in more than two decades, qualifying for the first time for the Champions League, European football’s premier competition.

Success-starved supporters, who’d waged a vociferous campaign against the club’s previous owner, retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley, have mostly stayed silent about the dark side of the Saudis.

Critical commentary about the Riyadh regime has also been muted in the local media; likewise, from north-east politicians. 

Newcastle Council issued an anodyne statement in the run-up to the Saudi friendlies (against Costa Rica on Friday, and South Korea on Tuesday), saying that the city “has a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant culture and we expect all organisations based here to share those values”.

That’s in sharp contrast with its decision to break-off a twinning deal with the Chinese city Taiyuan last year, in protest at the treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

Newcastle Central’s Labour MP Chi Onwurah has been more outspoken, criticising Saudi Arabia’s “atrocious” human rights record, and saying its treatment of women was “among the worst in the world”.

Her parliamentary colleagues have been noticeably less vocal, although in the aftermath of news that Saudi Arabia had executed 81 people in a single day in March 2021, Foreign Office Minister Amanda Milling responded to a parliamentary question by saying the takeover was “welcome”.

Lina al Hathloul

Lina al Hathloul, of the human rights organisation ALQST, argues that Saudi money has effectively muzzled criticism of the PIF’s involvement at Newcastle. “What we’ve seen is that, every time Saudi Arabia is involved in a project, people self-censor themselves, and accept being bought,” she says.  

Al Hathloul claims that one MP who sympathised with her cause had shied away from appearing at a public meeting in Newcastle this week, because they feared a backlash from supporters.

Lina’s sister, Loujain Al Hathloul, was jailed in 2018 after posting a tweet calling for women to be allowed to drive. This was, ironically, one of the reforms promised by MBS as part of his modernising ‘Vision 2030’ agenda. But, in a country where the concept of male guardianship is enshrined in law, Loujain made the fateful error of speaking up as a woman.

“What can’t be tolerated is anyone who speaks their mind” Lina explains. “When we talk of empowerment for women in Saudi Arabia… if women are not at the forefront of this fight, then it’s not empowering. It’s just another kind of repression.”

Loujain – who Lina says was electrocuted, waterboarded, flogged, and sexually harassed by the authorities – was released in February 2021 after spending more than 1,000 days in prison. She is now the subject of a travel ban, along with the rest of her family, preventing her from leaving her homeland.

The dilemma of whether to speak out against Saudi abuses, or turn a blind eye because of the financial benefits, doesn’t only apply to Newcastle.  

Top footballers like Jordan Henderson, previously an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights, are being lured with astronomical wages to the ambitious Saudi Pro League, which now rivals Europe’s top clubs in spending power.

Saudi Arabia has also mounted a successful takeover of elite golf by threatening a breakaway competition from the established PGA tour. 

The PIF has been making massive investments in other sectors too, in the UK, US and elsewhere, but none has the power to promote – or soften – a nation’s brand like sport.  

Lina believes that the Saudi state won’t stop there; MBS also dreams of elevating Saudi Arabia to the ranks of a nuclear power.

She says “there are still venues for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, for the war in Yemen, for the arrest and torture of a women’s rights activists, but the less we do now, the less we’ll be able to do in the future. I think we are emboldening a monster.  A monster that will be unstoppable in a couple of years.”

Listen to the full story on the Byline Times Podcast, edited and produced by Adrian Goldberg

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