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Opinion

Saudi human rights are not Newcastle’s burden

1 month ago
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Fourteen days have passed since Amanda Staveley’s consortium took the keys to St. James Park, and human rights are back on everyone’s lips due to the identity of the new new Newcastle United owners.

Make no mistake – critics of the takeover raise legitimate questions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record ranges from the absurd to the abhorrent.

Saudi Arabia regularly represses dissent, outlaws the practice of any religion outside of Islam, conducts public lashes and beheadings, and can even try children as adults for showing immodest signs of puberty.

The outside reaction to the takeover begs a larger question – what role should Newcastle fans play in debate surrounding Saudi Arabia’s domestic practices? More broadly – should sports fans have a role in promoting good governance and advancing human rights?

The Saudi-Newcastle venture’s closest parallel is Roman Abramovich’s $150m takeover of Chelsea in 2003. It was remarkably quick and incredibly secretive – but Financial Times Moscow Correspondent Catherine Belton’s brilliant exposé “Putin’s People” finally went under the hood on the the deal.

She alleges – staggeringly, to those who followed the Newcastle saga – that Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea at the direct behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She writes that former Putin advisor Sergei Pugachev told her:

“Putin personally told me of his plan to acquire the Chelsea Football Club in order to increase his influence and raise Russia’s profile, not only with the elite but with ordinary British people,’ he said. ‘It was a great operation. No questions were asked.’ ‘He also thought they should do it to win influence in FIFA, which was well-known as a corrupt organization.”

Yet if Chelsea was meant to be a Russian sportwashing project, it very clearly failed. A Pew Research study in 2020 found that a mere 24% of the British population holds a favourable view of Russia – a 23% drop from 2007. 38% viewed Russia favourably in 2012, a year Chelsea won the Champions League. Public opinion towards Russia continued to plummet after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal. You would struggle to find a Brit with a more positive view of Russia today than in 2003.

Yet Chelsea fans have never been asked to shoulder the burden of human rights abuses Mr. Abramovich may have been party to – and Newcastle fans should not be held to a different standard with Saudi Arabia.

It is not the responsibility of the average fan – whose life does not revolve around the ins-and-outs of global high-finance – to answer for compromises made in London, Brussels, and Zurich.

We need not listen to the Guardian journalists that preach high-minded virtue while splashing around in London neighbourhoods awash with dirty Russian money – and who say nothing as Mr. Abramovich launches a vindictive legal attack on Ms. Belton for pointing that out.

The issue lies not with the fans but with the executives that run Europe’s top leagues. In many ways, their compromises paid off handsomely. Between 2003 and 2020, Premier League revenues increased from £1.25 billion to £5 billion – a fourfold increase from the year Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea. Today, the league is broadcast in 212 countries and territories with an estimated viewership of 3.2 billion people.

The Premier League made a conscious choice – they would ignore the questionable records of the owners that drive growth, if it meant bigger audiences and more money in their pockets. They made that choice back in 2003 – they doubled down on it in 2008 with Manchester City and triple downed on it in 2018 with Southampton. If there is going to be a discourse on how sport affects human rights, it should start there.

It is long past time Western nations have an honest discourse about the relationship between sport and influence politics. But fans should not be expected to shoulder the burden of football governance’s compromises until football governance itself acknowledges how we got here. Absent that kind of self-scrutiny, it’s hard to imagine taking a single one of Newcastle’s supposed moral arbiters seriously.

(Alexander St. Leger is a Newcastle United fan from the United States. He is currently based in Chisinau, Moldova. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexStLeger)

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