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Exclusive interview with Nicholas McGeehan on the Newcastle United takeover

4 months ago
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Perhaps the days just feel extra long at the moment because we are all cooped up in the house for most of the day.

I don’t know about you but the start of April, when the Newcastle United takeover news emerged (again), seems like a lifetime ago.

We were told back then that it would be around four weeks for the Premier League to do all of their checks before we heard anything back.

Yet here we are four weeks later and no news so far as to whether this really is the end of Mike Ashley’s 13 year tenure of Newcastle United.

For once though, Ashley himself has not dominated the news.

I find it no coincidence that he has opted to sell the club to a consortium more controversial than himself. The Saudis have brought with them already arguably more baggage in four weeks of Premier League checks than 13 years of Mike Ashley. Although ‘arguably’ is certainly the key word there.

Despite having a very decent background in terms of understanding Saudi politics and issues after studying at University and developing a keen interest, I have stayed away from pretending to be an ‘ITK’ like journalists out there, or dentists in Dubai, or certain Newcastle fans desperate to be in the spotlight, because anyone claiming to be ‘ITK’ simply isn’t.

Last week though I sat down with Nicholas McGeehan (Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates researcher at Human Rights Watch).
for a chat, Human Rights Watch’ Qatar, Bahrain and UAE researcher. He has been cited regularly by many sources throughout the past four weeks, and I think a lot of the time, especially on social media, words and phrases (and tweets) can very easily be taken out of context.

I first asked McGeehan about the treatment of Newcastle supporters throughout this period from those in a similar line of work to him (and journalists too). It is no secret that fans have felt largely victimised over the past four weeks, and feel like they are taking an unfair share of the brunt from human rights activists, rather than the government, the Premier League, or Mike Ashley himself.

“I think it is the nature of the way supporters react to the possibility of success. I did a lot of work on City and Abu Dhabi… I learnt that the one thing you can’t do is tell supporters to care about stuff. Whatever you might think about it personally, you aren’t going to persuade anybody by forcing them. You can ask people to be informed, and object”.

It is a fair comment, and I think we have learned over the past few years, in relation to politics, that if you try and force your non-football views on someone, then people are more than willing to tell you where to stick your opinion. However, I do agree fully with McGheehan who said that he has;

“No time for the sharing of the Saudi flag stuff or celebrating pictures of MBS on social media”.

Sorry if you are one of these fans but the sharing of pictures of MBS is a step too far for me.

I fully understand that we are all happy with the Ashley leaving dynamic but his crimes are very far away from that of MBS.

One area that I did disagree with McGeehan on though was his belief that fans have not been under attack. He explained:

“I think we need to get away from the narrative that fans are under attack, is partly created by the fans and the dynamic of social media. (1) Journalist posts article (2) Fan critiques article (3) Journalist and fan go at each other, therefore fans are being attacked”.

I certainly don’t think this is the case for the likes of Miguel Delaney, who has made a point to go after Newcastle fans, and in a way, accuse them of being part of the problem. Perhaps Miguel is a rare example of an ignorant/arrogant journalist who has been caught on his high horse by fans who know more about their club then he had previously assumed.

There is of course the argument that the Saudis coming into NUFC would actually raise greater awareness and discussion about what is happening domestically in Saudi Arabia or their military adventures in Yemen. However, McGeehan rejected this approach which he described as the ‘shining a light stuff’.

“I don’t like that approach. I don’t think that is the right way to do it. I think this is really dangerous. Their (the Saudis) involvement, coupled with Abu Dhabi, is bad for the game, club and the city. Of course, I admit that I am saying this as an outsider”.

Yet when pressed further on whether this was an issue with particular individuals from these countries, and the families that rule states, or an issue with sovereign wealth funds buying countries, he was very clear in his answer.

“My issue is with state backed takeovers, I think what the PL needs to do long-term, is preventing government backed entities from running football clubs. Fans shouldn’t be put in the position of having to deal with this issue. There should already be legislation in place that says absolutely not.”

That comment I am certainly inclined to agree with, however, the precedent has been set now and Newcastle should not be the victims of a legacy of a lack of oversight into this issue. Should we be punished for previous Premier League failures?

Another thought is, what if these weren’t Arabs buying the club. What if they were another state trying to buy the club. Let’s take the country I live in at the moment for example, Singapore. I don’t believe that there would be the same kind of uproar and rhetoric in the media if Singapore was to try and buy a PL team. Even though it is a country where the people have little rights to protest or freedom of expression, it is illegal to be gay and capital punishment still exists.

Yet I do not think the same fuss would be made if Singapore would buy a club. Why not? Is it an anti-Arab thing?

“Azerbaijan getting involved in Atletico Madrid was criticised, likewise the World Cup in Russia received significant attention. You are right though, when it comes to the ownership of football clubs, the criticism has focused on the Gulf. If other states were to do it then I think activists who work on those areas would criticise it.”

Despite this though, we have not seen any criticism of Rwanda’s shirt sponsorship deal with Arsenal, nor did anyone kick up a fuss about Man Utd’s ongoing commercial deals (12 years and counting) with Saudi Arabia. Our friend Miguel Delaney was not active when it was claimed MBS was going to buy Man U.

Another interesting point, which I would love to hear more fans opinion on is, whether they are persuaded by the suggestion that the Saudis would bring investment into the area. Unlike other clubs, the mood of the whole city is actually rather dependent on the success of the football team. When the football team is doing well, the city is doing well, and vice versa.

“Of course there are pros and cons, regeneration, investment in the area… all broadly speaking a good thing. However, in Manchester, they bought high end housing, they arguably contributed to a housing gap in the city and funnelled profits offshore. So yes maybe a positive, but not wholly and very much in their self-interest… that is not to say that the Saudis would do it that way.”

It is a point that we share in that “nobody is trying to say there is no positives for the club but it is up to people to look at the costs associated with that and figure out if they are happy with that.”

You can follow the author on Twitter @JonathanComyn

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