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Opinion

If Newcastle United takeover is Sportswashing, is it working?

2 months ago
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I have been thinking about what my view was of Saudi Arabia before the Newcastle United takeover, compared to today.

That opinion had been formed subconsciously from multiple sources over six decades. How does that compare to my view now, two months after the Newcastle United takeover?

Saudi is not a country that I knew much about pre-takeover. I never took much notice of the country, let alone visited. So far as the Middle East was concerned, I knew a fair bit about the countries that were in the news more often than Saudi. Countries like Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iran, Iraq and others.

These countries were only in the news because of bad news. War, military coups, refugees, revolutions, religious factions and terrorist bombs. The back-drops to news reports were war-torn cites and dusty villages baking in the heat. The militia waving their AK-47s and a terrified displaced population. Sadly, a scene seemingly repeated in the majority of Middle East countries.

By contrast, Saudi always appeared to be an oasis of peace and prosperity in a region torn by war and conflict. Saudi was about oil-wealth, airconditioned hotels, marbled palaces, deserts, camels and Laurence of Arabia. It was about billionaire princes with gold Lamborghinis and Rolex watches. It was distinguished looking gentlemen in traditional robes and kaffiyeh being greeted at Buckingham Palace and Number 10. There was the quaint image of noble Bedouin tribesmen smoking their hookah around an oasis campfire in the desert starlight.

An inaccurate and myopic stereotype had been created in my mind. A smart looking Arab wearing a crisp white thawb and kaffiyeh was probably from Saudi or the UAE. A scruffy looking Arab dressed in quasi-military uniform or a tatty thawb was from any one of the other Middle East countries; the troubled countries.

This stereotype was created simply by the direction in which the TV cameras were pointing, and the reason for the camera’s presence. Reporters and cameras are drawn to war and desperate refugees; they are also drawn to oil-wealth and royal visitors.

However, although I was an unwitting patsy of the stereotype, I knew that there was a darker side to Saudi Arabia. The observance of Sharia law and the frequent use of corporal and capital punishment, 150-plus public executions every year. The archaic and cruel treatment of LGBTQ+ people, women, and ethnic minorities. The civil war in Yemen. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Some would argue that there were some redeeming features about Saudi. Saudi was one of the West’s few allies in the Middle East. Tension in the region was reduced by the fragile peace that existed between Saudi and the Arab’s historic enemy in Israel. Saudi was the Alpha Male in the region that kept her neighbours in line. £7 billion of arms sales from the UK. Thousands of jobs at BAE Systems in the Midlands and elsewhere in the supply chain. The regime finally let women drive in 2018. Only 27 people were executed in 2020.

I am making the statements above without any fresh research today as to their accuracy, balance or truth; I am simply setting-out what I believed to be the case pre-takeover. As with the Saudi stereotype, the media had told me the good things and the bad things about Saudi, and I had simply absorbed them through my phone and other devices.

Despite their critical OPEC influence, Saudi Arabia seemed to have no impact on my life at all. That didn’t make me indifferent. I vehemently disapproved of the brutal aspects of the regime, but I could do nothing to influence or change it.

But what do I think now, post Newcastle United takeover, and has my view of Saudi Arabia changed? If it has changed, what have I seen and heard to make that change, and where did I see and hear that information? Was that information even accurate?

I am still getting my information from newspapers, TV, social media, and particularly from Twitter, adding the likes of Jamie Reuben and Mehrdad Ghodoussi to those who I follow. So what do I know now that I didn’t know before?

Parts of Saudi are mountainous and green with lush vegetation. There is rainfall, lots of it in some places, and there are rivers and waterfalls. It occasionally snows, even in the desert. Some of the desert oases are tens of square miles in size. Within the oases and elsewhere there are thousands of acres of date plantations. Saudi also grows and exports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of wheat, barley, cucumbers and tomatoes.

My perception of what Saudi physically looks like has changed significantly in a matter of just a few weeks. It’s not all about sand, hotels, and Lamborghinis parked outside the Gucci shop. There is a lot more to Saudi than that.

And what about football in Saudi? I don’t remember how, but I now know that approximately 40% of the 30-million odd population of Saudi are aged under 25, and they are all football mad. Contrary to my assumption, camel racing isn’t the national sport of Saudi; it’s actually football.

Saudi has a thriving professional football league, and their equivalent of the Premier League has been in existence since 1976. 16 teams compete in the PFL and stadium capacities range from 6,000 to 60,000. Saudi Arabia has a successful women’s national football team. Allegedly NUFC has already become the European club of choice for Saudi football fans.

Pre-takeover my knowledge of individual Saudis was limited to only three people. Of these, the less familiar faces were those of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and the slightly sinister-looking King, Salman bin Abdulaziz. Unfortunately, the most familiar Saudi face was that of Osama bin Laden.

I now recognise the face of our new Chairman and Governor of the PIF, Yasir al-Rumayyan. Images and video emerged of him at the Spurs game 10 days after the takeover. A larger-than-life and cheerful looking man shouting his support for the Toon. Celebrating and groaning with the fans, and wearing a suit rather than traditional Arab dress. There’s nothing sinister-looking about this bloke. He looks like he would be good company on a night out. He also clearly loves our city and the club.

And then there’s Alwaleed Khaled Aldebasi. Alwaleed is the NUFC fan from Riyadh who was all over the local news when he made the 3,200-mile round trip to watch the Chelsea match. Thanks to kind-hearted Toon fans and club sponsor Fun 88 he also managed to see the Toon draw with Brighton at the Amex Stadium. The media image was of a happy young man with a beaming smile, wearing a Toon top and a red-checked kaffiyeh. He definitely seemed to be one of us.

There has been plenty of other media coverage of Saudi Toon fans. Some pictured in traditional dress or jeans outside SJP, and others celebrating the takeover in their home country.

So I’ve now seen a handful of friendly-looking Saudi faces, and better-still, these people share my passion for football, Newcastle, and the Toon. I’ve surprised myself by realising what a difference this tiny change has made to my perception of Saudi Arabia.

It is human nature to judge a country, in-part, by the people that live there. By knowing a native you get a feel for that country, even if that feeling is inaccurate or biased. I know two lovely families from Wales. Consequently I have a very positive image of Wales.

The same thing has happened to me with Saudi Arabia simply because of the few Saudi people that I have now ‘met’ who share my interests. I now have a different and slightly more positive image of Saudi.

The new board of NUFC does not look anything like a board that reflects the Saudi stereotype that I have described earlier. A woman, a man of Jewish heritage, and an urbane Harvard Educated businessman.

When I look at this board I see a familiar western-world structure similar to countless boardrooms to be found in London, Milan or New York. I don’t see a board that characterises a misogynistic, religiously intolerant, and oppressive regime. I get a different message; a modern, diverse and tolerant message.

My new Saudi friends don’t seem to take themselves too seriously either. The thawb and kaffiyeh and other items of traditional Arab dress have their roots in practicality, culture, national pride and religion. As far as the latter is concerned, a clean white thawb is a symbol of piety and modesty; by wearing it the individual deliberately and proudly identifies as a Muslim.

Although it required a change-of-heart, the club announced that no offence would be taken by our Saudi owners if fans chose to wear traditional Arab clothing. These are not the actions of a religiously intolerant regime. Who was responsible for the change-of-heart I wonder?

A country needs to have a dark side in order to be accused of Sportswashing. The UK wasn’t accused of Sportwashing when we hosted the Olympic Games in 2012, and neither was Greece in 2006. China was accused in 2008.

There are two limbs to Sportswashing. The first limb is to improve the country’s public image. The second limb is to divert attention away from the dark issues.

I have no idea if the purchase of NUFC was deliberate Sportwashing by the Saudi regime, or simply a balancing of the PIF portfolio. Was our new Chairman’s appearance at the Spurs game and future matches just an example of a carefully orchestrated PR exercise? I don’t know.

Whatever the reason for the purchase, I can confirm that I have been washed a little bit. If it is Sportswashing, it has worked on me. At least so far as the first limb is concerned.

I now have a slightly more favourable attitude towards Saudi than I did before the Newcastle United takeover. It is a country more geographically attractive than I ever realised, and I now know there is more to its economy than dates and crude oil. I like what I have seen of the people that live there. In a small way I am now able to judge Saudi by the actions of its people, rather than by the actions of the regime that governs them.

However, if it is Sportswashing it has failed completely on its second limb. My attitude to the Saudi record on human rights has not changed one jot. My opinion of Saudi isn’t a seesaw where the good bits now outweigh the bad bits. There are two separate piles. The good-bits pile has got slightly higher. The bad-bits pile remains the same size. If anything, it has been brought into sharper focus.

Following the rainbow flags display at the Burnley match I saw abusive homophobic Tweets in Arabic and English that appeared to emanate from Saudi Arabia. Are they genuine, or are they just trolls and jealous agitators? Who knows. Although I will definitely give him the benefit of the doubt, I also cannot help wondering what the smiling Alwaleed Khaled Aldebasi would think about my gay son.

I suspect that I am like the majority of Toon fans in that I don’t ignore the pile of bad bits. I abhor it, but I compartmentalise it and place it in the ‘nothing-to-do-with-football’ box.

If it is Sportswashing, my hope is that there will be a bit of a backwash too; an own goal. With more and more Saudis tuning in to watch football and the Toon, perhaps some of the better bits of western culture will wash back to Saudi. Democracy, diversity, religious tolerance, and a fair and humane judicial system.

Observing our culture through the lens of football will hopefully make a favourable impression on the people of Saudi and perhaps trigger some self-reflection. The opinions of the average Saudi citizen may one day be able to influence the regime. Something that you or I will never be able to do.

Whether I’ve been Sportswashed or not, I welcome our new owners with open arms, an abundance of goodwill, and considerable excitement. As for Amanda Staveley, Jamie Reuben and Yasir al-Rumayyan, they have already demonstrated that they have the makings of a dream team.

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