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The Newcastle United takeover – All (sports)washed up?

2 weeks ago
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“Football is a business, and a tough one at that, but the green playing area, well, that really is the field of dreams.”
– Steve Barnes, Sweeper

You don’t have to be a detective in one of Steve Bruce’s crime thriller books to work out that the latest story detailing how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally intervened in a bid from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to buy Newcastle United – essentially giving weight to the Premier League’s claim that bin Salman and PIF could not be separated – looks to have severely dented any lingering hopes of a Newcastle United takeover.

I’m not sure Steve Barnes, amateur detective and manager of the fictional Leddersford Town football club – the lead character in Bruce’s novels – would be able to solve the mystery as to why Bin Salman has scored this particular own goal.

Yet, as with anything related to Newcastle United, the issue is still far more complex than it appears.

Last year, once it appeared that the takeover looked dead in the water, Saudi Arabia’s PIF walked away from its attempt to buy NUFC, citing the “prolonged process” that lay ahead of them in the face of opposition from the Premier League in allaying concerns related to the influence that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would have on running the club. Since then, NUFC has lost two high court rulings ahead of the impending arbitration case and the Premier League does not seem to have budged on its position that the PIF is essentially “controlled” by the Saudi government.

The latest story detailing the direct involvement of Bin Salman and his urging of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “correct and reconsider” what bin Salman termed as a “wrong” decision by the Premier League in its blocking of the proposed Newcastle United takeover, looks to be another nail in the coffin for the deal.

It is also reported that Bin Salman threatened a wider impact on UK-Saudi relations, claiming they would be damaged if the takeover did not go through, highlighting the complicated international relations dimension to the issue.

On that issue of politics, the takeover was surely dealt another blow earlier this year when US intelligence agencies concluded in a declassified intelligence report that bin Salman approved the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Whilst the American government has stopped short of penalising bin Salman with sanctions, this report also provides critics of the takeover with yet more ammunition, particularly those in the media and wider public who fear that if the takeover was to go through, then Saudi Arabia would be taking sportswashing to a new level.

According to a recent report published by human rights organisation Grant Liberty, the Saudi-led takeover was just one piece of a wider sportswashing jigsaw worth $1.5 billion. I’m not sure that even a programme as big as that would ever be able to remove the stain that bin Salman and the Saudi government has left on human rights issues. However, as football fans, we should be rightly concerned with both how our club would be used in such a scheme, and how the Premier League can be used as a vehicle for state rehabilitation.

Yet it is highly likely that human rights concerns – as usual in these cases – took a back seat to the financial fallout of such a deal. Rather than the issue of sportswashing being the deciding factor in the derailing of the takeover, it seems that the issue of TV rights and, more specifically, geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar – owner of BeIN Sports, who signed a £365million extension to their deal to cover the league in the Middle East and North Africa region in December – and their issue with Saudi piracy was probably the central concern for the financial juggernaut that is the Premier League.

Whilst some of that may be conjecture, what is certain is that, on the issue of state ownership of football clubs, the stable door has long been closed after the horse has bolted. Once the Abu Dhabi Group acquired Manchester City back in 2008, the footballing landscape in England was changed forever. On the continent, the Qatar Sports Investments purchase of Paris St. Germain in 2011 meant that state ownership would now also infiltrate the European game at the highest level. The recent lamenting that three of the four Champions League clubs in the semi finals this year consist of teams owned by Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Roman Abramovich – a Russian oligarch – reflects the current one-way direction that football is headed in.

Yet this does not have to be a one-way street. Sport can be a powerful vehicle for change and whilst as fans we have very little agency as fans in who owns the club, as we have demonstrated with Mike Ashley’s tyrannical rule, we can raise awareness of issues related to the club and impact the narrative that way. This is also possible if we are ever taken over by the Saudis. We cannot impact what they do to their own citizens nor can we effect political relationships. What we can do, if ever in the position to do so, is to protest any human rights violations that the Saudis are responsible for and use the immense power and platform that the Premier League provides in shedding a light on those issues.

This is not a mutually exclusive issue, nor is it – if you’ll excuse the pun – as black and white as it first appears. It is possible to be both excited at Ashley’s potential departure and also concerned about the new owners and the kind of reputation and publicity they bring with them.

The arbitration case has yet to start. When it does, we’ll know better where we stand as a fan base and as a club. Personally, I cannot see how the Premier League could reverse their decision, primarily due to how it reflects on them as an organisation and the implications of the takeover on the region, the league, and the country as a whole.

In Bruce’s first novel Striker!, Steve Barnes is tasked with solving the murder of young Irish striker Pat Duffy, who was stabbed to death in the team’s changing room. Barnes, becoming a suspect in the case, spends the rest of the book struggling to clear his name.

The Saudis and bin Salman find themselves in a similar predicament, only this time it looks as if they have killed the Newcastle United takeover deal once and for all.

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