Sohan Gade and Kath Coetzer
On October 07, St. James Park swelled with Newcastle United (NU) fans reveling in the Premier League (PL) football club’s transferal of ownership. After 14 years, owner Mike Ashley was finally ousted from his position. His reprehensible behavior, which included a notable lack of interest in the club beyond its monetary success and the club’s enduring two league relegations, compelled Newcastle to fire the maligned retail tycoon . Replacing Ashley, however, is the Saudi backed Public Investment Fund (PIF), an organization with distinct ties to a regime notorious for human rights abuses. In its official announcement, Newcastle United identified a PIF-based investment group, PCP Capital Partners, and RB Sports & Media as the primary architects behind the recent takeover. However, Newcastle’s announcement was marked by its failure to disclose that Saudi Arabia’s crowned Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, serves as Chairman of the PIF.1 This connection contradicted the basis for Ashley’s removal and embroiled the NU and PL in controversy, sea of controversy and backlash.
Both the Premier League and Newcastle United responded to the ensuing backlash by qualifying that Saudi Arabia provided legal assurances that, “it will not be in control of one of its member clubs,” stressing that PIF is independent of the Saudi government.1 This statement starkly juxtaposed the PIF’s own emphasis on its role at the center of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. More disturbingly, the PIF has played a direct role in the Saudi human rights atrocities, as two PIF-owned aircrafts were deployed in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. NU’s contradictory vacillations are further evident in statements from Newcastle’s LGBTQ+ inclusive supporters’ group, United with Pride. United with Pride justified the transition of ownership as an opportunity to sway political actors in Saudi Arabia, arguing that “There is potential to be a positive influence to improving the conditions for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.2 This type of statement is frequently deployed by international sporting federations, where unfettered capitalism and the subversion of human rights for profit is justified as an opportunity to spread progressive ideas across the globe. Such a vacuous statement is a direct affront to tireless efforts of human rights campaigns and human rights activists, whose efforts have often been impeded by the Saudi Arabian government.
Rather than facilitating the spread of human rights, the PIF’s acquisition of NU is an intentional move to use sports as a cloak, thereby shielding and burying its own atrocious human rights record. This effort is best understood within the framework of “sportswashing,” a term coined by Amnesty International in response to the controversial purchase.3 Thus far, Saudi Arabia’s appear to be successful in essentially buying the silence of NU and PL supporters alike.
Khashoggi’s assassination represents a single instance part of a longstanding series of Saudi Arabia’s neglect for human rights. Amnesty International, among other organizations, vocalized their disapproval of the takeover. “[…] It represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” said Amnesty International’s UK chief executive, in an interview with Reuters.4
There are a lot of incentives for governments to enter the sports arena. Perhaps the most obvious are the economic benefits. This takeover represents the Saudi economy’s gradual shift away from its reliance on oil and gas. The country currently has a relatively high per capita income which is relatively high. However, it shoulders one of the highest rates of income inequality.5 Much of this can be attributed to the country’s use of migrant laborers, often from South or Southeast Asia.
As of 2020, the Human Rights Watch estimated that there were around 10 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.6 Migrant workers were reported to live in “degrading”, “unsanitary”, and “extremely overcrowded” conditions. By “sportswashing,” Saudi Arabia covers up this injustice.
Even from a sports perspective, the move is part of a negative trend. The Saudi’s Newcastle takeover is not the first time that oil-rich Middle Eastern owners have eyed soccer teams. Two of Europe’s top clubs, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain were purchased by investors tied to the UAE Government. Both teams have enjoyed a nearly endless budget for their expenses and potential transfers. However, this can and will create unfair advantages for many of the other teams in the competition. For example, in 2019, Huddersfield Town operated with the lowest budget in the English Premier League: a lowly £125m turnover. At the opposite end of the ladder, Manchester City has the highest value with £500m turnover.7
In theory, the teams with the most money attract high quality players and win championships. These teams will also generally have higher ticket sales and media coverage. In other words, with tycoon external owners, the wedge between the wealthier and poorer teams grows, forming a quasi-class system with little mobility.
Most importantly, the Saudi takeover sheds light on the intersectionality of sports. Sports can be a theatre for ongoing social issues and oppressive social systems. While Newcastle fans are rightly excited about their team’s potential, there are many layers of corruption and violence in the background.
- Conn, David. “Saudi Takeover of Newcastle Leaves Human Rights to Fog on the Tyne | David Conn.” The Guardian. October 08, 2021.
- Reuters, “Newcastle Takeover Can Improve Conditions for LGBTQ+ People in Saudi Arabia, Says Supporters Group,” Reuters, October 8, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/newcastle-takeover-can-improve-conditions-lgbtq-people-saudi-arabia-says-2021-10-08/.
- Amnesty International UK, “Newcastle United Deal Was Always ‘blatant’ Saudi Sportswashing,” Amnesty International UK, July 30, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/newcastle-united-deal-was-always-blatant-saudi-sportswashing.
- Reuters, “Amnesty Voices Human Rights Concerns as Saudi Takeover of Newcastle Looms,” Reuters, October 7, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/amnesty-voices-human-rights-concerns-saudi-takeover-newcastle-looms-2021-10-07/.
- Vision 2030. “Homepage.” Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.vision2030.gov.sa.
- Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia: Migrants Held in Inhuman, Degrading Conditions,” December 15, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/12/15/saudi-arabia-migrants-held-inhuman-degrading-conditions#.
- David Conn, “Premier League Finances: The Full Club-by-Club Breakdown and Verdict,” The Guardian, May 22, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/may/22/premier-league-finances-club-guide-2017-18-accounts-manchester-united-city.