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Saudi Newcastle United takeover – Sportswashing or Increased Scrutiny?

2 years ago

The proposed Newcastle United takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has attracted worldwide attention from human rights activists, such as Amnesty International, and numerous sports journalists.

It’s a move described as sportswashing and pressure is being placed on Newcastle fans to consider if they should support such a regime.

As a mere football fan, I do not wish, nor am I qualified, to debate the Saudi government and their actions, immoral or otherwise.

This is probably ignorant; however, I am more interested in looking at the claims being made about the takeover.

What is Sportswashing?

Sportswashing is a term to describe the use of sports to detract from the questionable behaviour of a state and improve its global reputation.

Examples include the Joshua v Ruiz heavyweight title fight held in Saudi Arabia last year, the Bahrain F1 grand prix and of course, the ownership of Manchester City and PSG by Abu Dhabi and Qatar respectively.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK Director, views the takeover of Newcastle by Saudi Arabia as an ‘image building exercise’ and says the Premier League should investigate their human rights record before approving a deal. She does not go as far to say the takeover should be prevented but certainly implies it would be detrimental to football.

Coverage of Human Rights violations

In the past couple of weeks, I, and I’m sure many other football fans, have read various opinions and stories about the Saudi regime. The assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the conflict in Yemen, public beheadings and abhorrent treatment towards women and LGBT groups. These stories are horrific, no one is denying that.

However, the wider public were not necessarily as aware of them before the news about Newcastle broke…

In that case, is this takeover, and the subsequent ownership, an effective educational tool for football fans to learn about and question the atrocities occurring in countries such as Saudi Arabia?

Chairman of the PIF and deputy prime minister, Mohammed bin Salman will find himself under an enormous amount of pressure and scrutiny, not least by Newcastle fans, for his actions both at the club and in his home country.

We are without doubt a socially conscious club, as evidenced by the fantastic support of food banks. Mike Ashley’s own unethical behaviour has been highlighted and criticised by fans and I expect this will continue (with the new owners), even if there is success on the pitch.

Investment in the North East

The PIF reportedly aim to invest in the local area, which would explain the involvement of the Reuben brothers, who already own various property in Newcastle. This can obviously be viewed as another technique to improve the positive perception of the Saudi state but that does not deny it would be good for an area so devoid of attention from our own government.

It shows an intent to do the right thing for the community, something Mike Ashley has never been interested in.

I feel this is a key point missed by many journalists not local to the area, although equally, PIF cannot be praised for it until they outline their specific plans.

Newcastle fans have dreamed of seeing Mike Ashley depart the club for the best part of a decade now and it is exciting to think he may be replaced by what would be the wealthiest owners in the league. However, we should recognise where that money is coming from, which is perhaps not to be celebrated.

This is an opportunity to see our club and city prosper, which I hope will see a new generation fall in love with Newcastle United and at the same time we can shed light on actions that we feel are unacceptable.

You can follow the author on Twitter @TSiddons


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