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Opinion

‘Saudi PIF St James Park – why the fuss?’

4 weeks ago
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As the new majority owners of Newcastle United, the Saudi PIF have seen their team take to the field twice, so the critics have come out in force.

Protests of some have taken place inside grounds, others outside. The focus has been on human rights.

There are several reference points but one of the most prominent organisations is Amnesty International. They have profiled several countries for what are labelled as “human rights” abuses.

Some of these relate to corporal and capital punishment. Corporal punishment was banned in British schools in 1988 and from the justice system in 1948, finally in prisons in the UK from 1967 although the last prison flogging took place in 1962. As for capital punishment, the last UK hanging was in 1964 but is still a feature of many systems, in Islamic states, China and the USA to name a few.

Other so called human rights abuses include freedom of speech and religious discrimination. Notably, Amnesty International also highlight subjugation of women.

Seeing the press coverage, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that this is solely a Saudi issue. In fact, many Muslim countries follow the same protocols. It is interesting to note that constitutionally, Saudi law is overridden by Sharia law. By picking on one country at a time rather than Islam as a religion, presumably Amnesty International can avoid a broader accusation of grouping all Islamic countries together.

Taking over Newcastle United has also been labelled as “sports washing”, in short, using sport to generate a positive image of the state. Is this why a Saudi public investment fund would choose to buy a Premier League club?

In recent years, the fund has grown considerably. Many countries invest in these sovereign wealth funds, the largest currently being Norway, most of the rest of the top 25 being based on oil and gas receipts.

The investment in Newcastle United is certainly high profile but much bigger investments have been made in fossil fuels, aviation and notably service industries such as in Disney and Carnival Cruises. In their own country, investment has been made in infrastructure and tourism, particularly on the Red Sea. Other investments have been in green technology and banking.

The biggest reason for these investment funds is to generate revenue from investments in future years, after all, fossil fuels are a finite resource. It is notable how the Saudi PIF has been investing in the economy of the future, services industries, high technology and leisure. It is a legitimate question as to what sort of Arab nations do we want to see for long term global stability, one that integrates western values or one that is a social pariah?

The neighbouring Qatar has broadcast rights through much of the Muslim Arab world. The latest deal with Qatari BeIN is said to be worth $500 million. Although the Premier League clubs all receive a good income, so far none have gone on record as refusing that portion of their Premier League payouts. Indeed, the rest of the Football Association seek to send a team to the World Cup in Qatar.

The North East has a history of global trade. Whilst it may have been an affront to former Japanese PoWs and the families of those who died as a result of Japanese human rights violations, Nissan has had a foothold since 1984. We welcomed their investment, jobs and access to their markets. They are welcome to learn and share our values.

So what of the Saudis?

History has seen us in conflict with the Muslim world. The Crusades were fought under the holy cross in the name of the Pope against Muslims. The Knights Templar were a key component as an instrument of brutality, at least according to some historians. Yes, we like that to be history.

The new owners of Newcastle United are not solely the Saudi PIF. To their credit, they are fronted by a woman. The third party in the investment are of the Jewish faith, commendable for an Arab stakeholder. There is some room for optimism.

As an aside, there does not seem to be a record of which of the nine Saints James the home of Newcastle United is named after. It seems unlikely that it was Saint James the Moor Slayer, canonised after reputedly killing 5,000 Muslims in battle. It is more likely to be the Roman, James the Deacon, who was present at the wedding of King Edwin of Northumbria and his queen, Ethelburga, after who the school where the last two NUFC summer training camps was named.

Of course, even if the championing of women’s right to part own a football club and the branch of friendship to the Jewish community is taken as a sign of a willingness to integrate, critics will still label this as advanced sports washing.

Those critics will also ignore the wider promises of investment in the Tyneside community. As a generous and forthright people, some of us will welcome our new friends whilst confronting them on other issues. The opportunity for dialogue is key to progress.

Maybe our critics are right to call us glory hunters but, after all, we have been since 1955 with more frustration than most. We will face taunts when we visit the Emirates or the Etihad. We will see the boxes which house those who made money from foreign property investors in London, be it from property to trading.

For as long as our new friends respect our values, we can hope to help bring change.

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