Saudi Arabia “Sport Washing” their Human Rights Record with the Takeover of Newcastle United

BY MILLIANA GILL-MEHAN

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen here in 2019, has been heavily criticised for his Government's human rights record.


Football serves as England's political theatre. In Euro 2020, the England men’s team took the knee to display support for the Black Lives Matter movement and protest against racial injustice. England player Marcus Rashford aided and campaigned for those who lost out on the free school meals during the coronavirus lockdowns. Currently, the latest political juncture is over the long-awaited sale of Newcastle United.


Newcastle United has displayed below average Premier League performances since the previous takeover of Mike Ashley in 2007. The previous owner was deeply unpopular among the fanbase. Being relegated twice in 2009 and 2016, Newcastle has been on a steady decline, currently sitting at 19th place this year. Desperate to sell the club, a fortunate £305m takeover by the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Wealth Fund has been approved by the Premier League. A deal that has been heavily criticised by many organisations given the terrible human rights record of Saudi Arabia.


Amnesty International UK’s chief executive Sacha Deshmukh, states that this deal is the Saudi authorities attempt to “sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football”. Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights, especially to LGBTQ+ individuals, and lack of democratic rule calls for great contention over this deal. Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp recognised these concerns but claims that most football fans care little about who directly owns the club. This was evident one and a half weeks ago when an estimated 15,000 fans gathered in St James’ Park to celebrate the takeover. A poll of Newcastle fans found a vast majority in support of the acquisition; with supporters clearly primarily focussed on the revival of the club. With assets of £250bn, the new takeover has sparked hope among the supporters that the club will sign a high profile manager and talented players into Newcastle United.


The entity that has bought the club, The Public Investment Fund (PIF), is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. A CIA report concluded that he was likely involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was a critic of the Saudi Crown Prince and was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The closed-door trial Saudi Arabia undertook was widely perceived to be part of a whitewash by the authorities.


Saudi Arabia is further accused of innumerable crimes under international humanitarian law during the conflict in Yemen. Their human rights record in conjunction with the murder of Khashoggi has left the moral grounds for this deal to be questioned repeatedly.


The Premier League said the consortium which bought the club, containing Saudi Arabia’s PIF, the businesswoman Amanda Staveley and billionaire property developers Simon and David Reuben, have received “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United”. In the League’s view, the PIF is deemed as a separate entity, and any piracy issues were not an impediment to the takeover.


Amnesty International's statement further recoils at the fact that “the phrase ‘human rights’ ‘’doesn't even appear” in the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test, despite the English football allegedly adhering to the FIFA standards. A strong backlash is being received by the Premier League for their lack of recognition of Saudi Arabia’s sportwashing.


However, the other top England football clubs moved to protest and block Newcastle United from signing sponsorship deals. They are concerned Newcastle, thanks to their Saudi owners, could reach unfair deals. Last Monday, 20 clubs held an emergency meeting where they voted in favour of a temporary ban on teams striking commercial deals involving so-called related parties. Eighteen clubs backed this motion amid concerns over this new consortium. Newcastle, naturally, voted against, whilst Manchester City, owned by the billionaire member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, abstained from voting.


Recent weeks have seen efforts to push back and re-evaluate Newcastle United’s consortium. Ultimately, the fact that the appalling human rights record of Saudi Arabia, including the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, did not affect the decision to let this consortium buy Newcastle, is a damning indictment of the FA, Premier League and English society.


Image - Flickr (World Tourism Organization (UNWTO))