The Newcastle Takeover and ‘Sportswashing’

While a fanbase rejoices, others are left in despair. Brandon Bethune examines the Toon Takeover, Saudi Arabia’s image enhancement plan, and how stakeholders in sport can respond.

Newcastle United takeover was confirmed last week. (Photo Credit – Owen Humphreys via Getty)

If I were a Newcastle United fan, I’d be hard pressed to find a reason not to be excited at the moment.

After 14 years of disappointments, relegations, and snuffed out glimmers of hope, Newcastle have finally been handed a lifeline by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium, aka the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, whose investment into the ownership of the club has made Newcastle one of the richest football teams in the world overnight.

This deal has been long speculated and mulled over, with the likelihood of the takeover jumping from absolute to impossible time and time again, all before official confirmation on 7th October set the football world alight. 

The reaction outside St. James’ Park was a sight to see, with fans rejoicing at the prospect of a club dormant in competition for almost two decades, potentially reaffirming their place among Europe’s elite over time … the moment they’re able to jump out of that 19th placed spot. After that though, they’re golden.

Underneath all the celebrations and optimism however, the news is part of an extremely worrying and dangerous pattern.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has had a keen eye on sports for years 

I’m not going to blow anyone’s minds with this information, but the new owners of Newcastle United may be a tad problematic, guys. And Newcastle fans thought Mike Ashley was bad.

The £300 million takeover of Newcastle as overseen by the Saudi Public Investment fund, is headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who for the past several years has been hell bent on washing away any and all mention of his country’s atrocious human rights record and consistent violations, and has ploughed money into sport in the hope of doing so. 

For those unaware, Newcastle United is only the latest in a long line of events the Kingdom has pushed forward using their beyond deep pockets, in order to present a lovely, provocative image of the world’s biggest sports stars embracing the rich culture of Saudi Arabia.

Boxing, golf, MMA, football, and professional wrestling have all had events take place in Saudi Arabia as part of their ‘Vision 2030’ programme in the last few years. The Kingdom has become obsessed with the idea of becoming a vital economic part of the world in an area other than oil, and so the ‘sportswashing’ began.

‘Sportswashing’ being an all-encompassing term for Saudi’s attempts to whitewash their human rights records by presenting sports of the highest calibre money can buy.

WWE have been accused of tuning a blind eye during their Saudi shows. (Photo Credit – WWE)

Time and time again a blind eye has been turned to this.

WWE, in particular, have been atrocious in their approach, beginning a Saudi deal with opening show The Greatest Royal Rumble in April 2018. WWE celebrated the kingdom with positive propaganda placed throughout the event. Since then, WWE – an arrogantly image-conscious promotion – have refused to name the country directly while still putting on shows there, as a false sense of saving face.

The 2019 Crown Jewel event in Saudi Arabia has been shrouded in controversy ever since, when an apparent argument between WWE and the Saudi government saw wrestlers stranded in the country for over 24 hours, due to coincidental ‘technical issues’ with their flight.

Most egregious of all however, has been WWE’s waving of positive human rights advancements while simultaneously running events in Saudi. The company decided to run Crown Jewel 2018 in the middle of the investigations following journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, allegedly at the request of the Crown Prince. Furthermore, WWE continue to promote women’s matches in the Kingdom, the same country that continues to withhold and mistreat female activists who protested the same human rights advancements for women that would later be implemented anyway.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been another source of controversy. (Photo Credit – Shutterstock)  

 The WWE connection, though worlds apart in a sporting context, brings into sharper focus the calculated nature of Saudi investment into sport, and the disheartening willingness of those in positions of power to disregard it as long as their pockets are being further lined. 

WWE’s promotion of positive female rights directly contradict their ethics to promoting shows in Saudi Arabia, and looking at the current landscape of football as well, those contradictions are all very present there too.

Some of the biggest football stories and events of the past year and the coming year, such as the Super League debacle and the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar, are two massive examples of greed seeping within the game, and ignorance towards the human rights records of these countries.

I don’t want to sound like an old man yelling at clouds here, “GREED IN FOOTBALL?!?! WHO KNEW!” but the continuation of these problems aren’t a new issue, with the objections to Qatar’s World Cup bid dating back to the initial announcement in the early 2010s.

Amnesty International, a world leader in human rights development, have cast their watchful eye over these issues for years. The group sent a letter to try and block the Newcastle takeover from being approved by the Premier League, which fell on deaf ears, and despite reporting upwards of 3000 migrant deaths due to ungodly working conditions in Qatar since 2010, the country’s status as World Cup hosts next year remains unchanged.

It should be said that investigations in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have found that advancements have reportedly been made in the human rights of their citizens, in order for them to stamp their place in football. The Premier League’s refusal to allow the Saudi takeover of Newcastle last year proved largely to be because of the unclear separation between the organisation purchasing Newcastle, and the Crown Prince, who owns an 80% stake in it. 

This seems to have been rectified, though there are still doubters who claim the league was more concerned with the regime blocking a Premier League TV rights holder from showing games in the country.

Nevertheless, to say major advancements still need to be made would be a vast understatement. The likes of football and pro wrestling can’t coast on the notion that silent co-operation with these countries is enough.

The last year has shown football can come together to be a force for good. (Photo Credit – Liverpool FC)

If we’ve learned anything over the past year in football though, it  is that when people come together, these issues can be tackled.

Football collectively shut down and came together in the face of the pandemic, while demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter movement continue to take place. We’ve had leaders like Gary Neville deliver impassioned speeches defacing the greed in the beautiful game. Leaders like Marcus Rashford have stopped up in the face of poverty and negligence. Leaders like Erling Haaland have stood as the face of their countries bids to protest Qatar’s World Cup, demanding ‘human rights on and off the pitch’.

It will be interesting to see, in the face of the Newcastle United takeover and as we approach the 2022 World Cup, whether this togetherness will remain, because while I understand the different sense of togetherness that has surrounded St. James’ Park in recent days, there is far more at stake. 

Football, and sport as a whole for that matter, has the power to cause immense social change. Let’s see where that power is used next.

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