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Sportswashing is a term that explains little and obscures everything

1 month ago
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To say the least, a lot has been made about the Newcastle Untied takeover.

After 14 years of talking about the takeover amongst ourselves, I think we were all in agreement that one day, once it was done, we could finally stop talking about it.

Alas, thanks to the national media and the 80% ownership of Newcastle United coming from the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, this hasn’t been the case.

Amnesty International, as well as a whole host of hypocritical national sports journalists, have said that the Newcastle United takeover is being used by Saudi Arabia as a tool to “sportswash” their human rights record. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. What is true though, is that sportswashing is a term that explains little and obscures everything. Believe it or not, the concept itself is hardly new, if you circa all the way back to the 1936 Olympics in Germany…

Before I go on though, I found the following passage in an article by the Guardian a while back that I think is worth ‘setting the scene’ with:

“Here’s an interesting circular equation. Manchester United are currently playing Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Champions League. Paris Saint-Germain are owned by Qatar. Qatar also sponsors Bayern Munich and Roma and has a “foundation” project with Real Madrid.

Real Madrid are sponsored by the Emirates airline of the UAE. Another of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, owns Manchester City. Manchester City are taking on Schalke, who are sponsored by Gazprom, which is owned by Russia, which is in effect at war in Syria with Qatar, which is being blockaded by Dubai, which is a financial services partner of Manchester United, whose next opponents will be Paris Saint-Germain, who are owned by Qatar. Which is pretty much where we came in.

Confusing, isn’t it? If only there were a single figure who could stand above and wade through this confusion of interests. For example, Nasser al-Khelaifi, the newest member of UEFA’s executive committee.

Khelaifi is also chairman of BeIn sports, which pays UEFA for its Champions League TV rights. UEFA is investigating claims of financial fair play breaches by PSG. Where he is — do keep up — the club chairman.”

You get the point?

It’s an ignorant and borderline racist, western attitude to assume that Arab countries do things to ‘please’ or ‘appease’ us… as if Arab countries are craving sorely for our approval. I mean, who do we think we are? This somewhat of a bizarre attitude that rests upon the assumption that foreign investment in sport, or the hosting of sporting competitions, should be awarded only to countries with clean human rights records. First of all, you’d have to question if such a country even exists – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark maybe? Possibly Germany? After that, we are clutching at straws. Needless to say, our own country, which supplies arms to various illegal wars worldwide is by no means guilt free.

Who wants to hear this though? Not the average football fan. In the main, we just want to watch football and support our team.

Countries in the Arabian peninsula have been using foreign investments effectively for a long time.

How do I know what I’m talking about? Well, having studied Middle Eastern Studies for the best part of five years, completed two degrees, wrote two theses on PIF investments in Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Salman’s desire to achieve the goals set out in Saudi Vision 2030, spent four years studying Arabic, worked in the gulf, built friendships in Saudi Arabia and to this day maintain clients and friends in the country, I have an idea what goes on and why things happen.

Rather embarrassingly, it happens to be the only thing I know anything about.

Much of the irony of the rhetoric over the past couple of weeks is that everybody seems to be an expert on what goes on in Saudi Arabia, with almost zero knowledge, or at least comment, on the domestic scene in Saudi Arabia.

Since King Salman ascended to the throne in 2014, multiple work programmes, visions, initiatives and more, have been introduced to address domestic issues within the country. One example being, the government’s aim to create 1.8 million jobs directly or indirectly by 2025 – with the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, the PIF, used as the main vehicle of addressing this. Of course, the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia, of few jobs, high unemployment, growing inequality and low standards of living amongst a huge population (comparatively to its neighbours) has been exacerbated by recent dips in the price of oil and Covid-19.

Nonetheless, the main aim of the PIF has not changed. That is, not to ‘hide Saudi Arabia’s human rights record’ but namely to address fiscal stabilization, introduce a manageable macroeconomic agenda, develop capital and financial markets, improve Riyadh’s own banking system and essentially digitize the country into the next decade.

Transforming Saudi Arabia’s private sector into an engine of growth is integral – with this comes investment in sectors around the world where Saudi Arabia can be globally competitive – sports, including boxing and F1, being one of them.

Lazy journalism and individuals pursuing their own simplistic agenda have placed an unnecessary, and in most cases, false emphasis on the role foreign policy plays in PIF investments. In instances in which foreign policy plays a role in PIF investments, I’m sorry to tell you guys, it’s got nothing to do with us. Instead, it can be described as a regional play in which Gulf states are motivated to invest in a company or global industry if that move blocks a regional rival from expanding their influence in a certain sector – football again being the perfect example with UAE and Qatar having long outperformed Saudi Arabia in this market.

To reiterate, investments on behalf of sovereign wealth funds are always a reaction to the market – and not to the opinion westerners have on human rights violations.

Owning a football club is a strategic, financially motivated decision designed to improve not only the financial centres in which the clubs originate but to strengthen sport in Riyadh, and establish financial centres and commercial links with high-potential regions. What sport also gives you is the ability to market other ‘lagging sectors’ to a global audience – UAE and Qatar have used this tool to almost marketing perfection with Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways – now arguably the three most reputable airlines in the world.

Huge investments in global companies such as Facebook, Twitter, SoftBank, Disney etc – and the subsequent purchase of Newcastle United, are just another step in Saudi Arabia’s project of diversifying their economic resources as they move away from their reliance upon petrochemicals. It should be noted too, and I was told this by a close friend in Saudi Arabia, that sovereign wealth funds invest in western companies not because of an ulterior motives of hiding human rights abuses but because these companies provide a “low-risk, non-regulatory environment which can only be found in western markets.”

The financial benefits of these investments are not being used to cover up human rights abuses, but instead used to re-invest back into Saudi Arabia with various projects including Qiddiya City, NEOM, Red Sea Project and metro stations in Riyadh & Jeddah (albeit with various degree of success so far) already underway.

It goes without saying that our government, and world governing bodies, need to be doing far more to address human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia – with no free speech, rising executions, unfair female discrimination practices, religious discrimination, treatment of migrant workers, and worst of all – the plight of the LGBT community in the country. Being owned by Saudi Arabia is by no means anything to be proud of. I would implore our government and local MPs to address these issues at every available opportunity.

However, the argument that Arab countries invest in sports teams to provide ‘cover’ for human rights abuses could not be further from the truth – in fact, I’d go as far to say it is 100% false and sportswashing, when you break it down for what people think it is, actually doesn’t exist at all.

Saudi Arabia has not bought Newcastle United so that western journalists can pat them on the back and say “oh well done, you are a good boy, I forgot all about your human rights abuses.”

Saudi Arabia has bought Newcastle United, and continues to invest in various sectors globally, because building relationships around the world goes hand in hand with increasing foreign direct investment into Saudi Arabia – which then goes hand in hand in growing Saudi Arabia’s economy, country, and society away from a dependence on petrochemicals and towards a brighter future.

I’d encourage all of us to remember, it’s not always about us y’know.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonnyinsg

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