The Trail of Blood Money Goes Beyond Tyneside

The Saudi takeover of Newcastle United should worry you, but taking out your frustrations on the fans is wrong. Raph Boyd explores how this takeover is not an isolated incident, and critiquing Newcastle supporters will not solve the bigger issues in play.

Members of the Toon Army have fully embraced their new Saudi owners, dressing in traditional attire and waving flags of the nation at St. James’ Park.
(Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

At around three o’clock in the afternoon on the 6th of October, news broke on Twitter that the long awaited takeover of Newcastle United Football Club was on the verge of happening, and within an hour, #cans began to trend in the North East of England. Little over twenty-four hours later, at around five in the afternoon, the takeover was confirmed and within the hour, the outskirts of St. James’ Park had been swallowed by an ocean of black and white stripes.

Tea towels supposed to resemble Keffiyehs were worn, the flag of Saudi Arabia was flown and there was even a live performance. To a crowd surely in the thousands Johnny ‘Bluehat’ Davis, the saxophonist for Tyneside’s own Sam Fender, serenaded the masses with a rendition of the city’s unofficial anthem, Mark Knopfler’s Going Home. It was the sort of scene you’d expect to witness in the streets of a country filled with hope following a revolution against a tyrannical government and the overthrowing of a despot. 

Which is ironic, because Mohammed bin Salman who, as the chairman of the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia that now owns 80% of Newcastle United, has been described that way many times before. The 36-year-old Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has become an increasingly powerful figure in world politics throughout the last decade, having been appointed the heir apparent to his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, in June 2017.

Seen by many as Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, bin Salman is both the country’s deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence and whilst praised for certain reforms regarding women’s rights, his regime is still an authoritarian one which has seen journalists and dissidents intimidated, imprisoned or as famously happened to Jamal Khashoggi, assassinated. He was also behind the blockade and bombing campaign against Yemen that has caused a famine which has led to hundreds of thousands of people dying, at least 80,000 of them children.

So, how could Geordies possibly feel any emotion other than disgust to learn that a man like this, and his regime, are now in control of their club? Well, lots of them do. For the thousands that swarmed St. James’ following the takeover becoming official, just as many will feel as if the club they love has sold not just its name and its colours, but its very soul, and may never be able to reclaim it.

The majority, however, are somewhere in between. Caught between an elation that the days of Mike Ashley, Sports Direct, and a stagnant lack of ambition may have been traded for years of contending with the world’s finest, and a feeling of unease at the price they may be paying to get there. 

This question is overshadowed by one much more important one; why are people acting as if Newcastle is on its own in this dilemma? Why, in a football league with at least two other teams owned by billionaires whose fortunes are tinged with blood, are all the fingers being pointed at the North East? Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich made his fortune via unclear means, at best through taking advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union and selling assets that were previously state owned, and at worst, allegedly, through fraud, blackmail, intimidation, money laundering and most pertinent, organised crime. He is also responsible for the most pollution by any individual on earth.

Roman Abramovich made waves when he purchased Chelsea back in 2003, with plenty of moral questions being asked of the Russian oligarch and his business.
(Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Sheikh Mansour, who bought Manchester City in 2008 is, like bin Salman, a member of a royal family – in his case, the royal family of Abu Dhabi, and also serves as a deputy Prime Minister for the United Arab Emirates. Whilst he does not hold anywhere near the level of power bin Salman does in his own country, his government is still responsible for forced disappearances, torture and murder of dissidents, and the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers who are used to build their rapidly expanding cities. 

What links all these men, more than their fortunes or their purchasing of football clubs, is their reason for doing so: sports washing, both on a personal or national scale. Whether you’re a Russian oligarch trying to divert attention from his past, or a high-ranking member of a regional dynasty trying to change how the world will see their country going forward, the acquisition of these teams improves, or at least changes, the perception people have of their owners.

There are, of course teams, in the Premier League besides Newcastle United and Manchester City who also have links to the Saudi and Emirati governments. For example, in 2004, Arsenal signed a sponsorship deal with Emirates, the sister airline to Mansour’s Etihad, which not only saw Arsenal’s shirts bearing the Emirates insignia from 2006/07 onward, but would see the club’s new stadium named The Emirates Stadium in the airline’s honour.

Furthermore, in 2008, Manchester United signed a deal with Saudi Telecom, a deal which is still in place now and was described as the “longest running of all our commercial partners” in a 2017 club statement. Yet when the Manchester club were leading the charge to prevent Newcastle’s takeover, this link was strangely ignored.

Away from the Premier League, football as a whole has become increasingly more accepting of the two governments. Controversially, the 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup will be held in Qatar, and will be the first edition of the revered tournament to be held in winter. Since being awarded the right to host the World Cup back in 2010, the selection has been criticized, with the country’s fitness to hold it being brought into disrepute numerous times. Qualms range from accusations of corruption in the initial bidding process, to questions over whether football’s increasing focus on acceptance and inclusivity will be tarnished by the country’s treatment of women and the LGBTQ+ community. It has even been claimed that Qatar is subjecting its workers, most of whom are immigrants, to unsafe working conditions in an effort to build the stadiums and infrastructure they need for 2022.

Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid has been consistently controversial, with workers losing their lives and questions raised over the nation’s treatment of women and those in the LGBTQ+ community.
(Photo Credit – GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Reputable sources such as the BBC, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal have all reported on the subject and have relayed stories of workers having the passports taken from them and being denied pay, effectively making them modern day slaves, and have claimed that hundreds, if not thousands, of workers have already died preparing for the competition.  

Outside of football altogether, The United Kingdom’s government continues to sell arms to human rights abusers. A 2021 report from the Campaign Against Arms Trade found that the UK had sold more than £15 billion worth of arms that the Foreign Office had deemed as repressive regimes, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar amongst them. The weapons sold to Saudi Arabia, including bombs and fighter jets, have been used in the country’s aforementioned conflict in Yemen. If the British government can’t be held to account for the actions of a regime whose destruction it funds, why should Newcastle United Football Club and, more crucially, their fans?

It’s right, if not essential, to view the takeover Newcastle through a lens of scepticism. The increasing lack of notice that football gives to repressive regimes in favour of focusing on money is wrong, but it’s also not something that only came to Britain with the takeover. It has existed for years, both in and out of football, and placing the blame on Newcastle, and labelling its fans as complicit just for showing excitement for a new era is wrong. Newcastle are not the first domino to fall. They are the latest, and they may well be the biggest, but ultimately if you are looking to effect genuine change and not just finding an excuse to pile on the fans of Newcastle, you have to understand that the trail of blood money goes beyond Tyneside.

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