Buying of a football club, geopolitics and sportswashing
The takeover of Newcastle United, an ailing English club, by a consortium led by a Saudi-backed investment fund, has once again stoked a passionate debate on sportswashing. As a result of the approval of the buyout, the struggling club has suddenly become the richest club in the world's richest football league, the English Premier League (EPL), where Newcastle currently ranks 19th out of 20 teams in the league's point table. The change of ownership, though largely welcomed by the fans of Newcastle, has prompted widespread criticism from human rights groups, and raised some critical geopolitical questions.
These supporters, who have been demanding the ouster of Mike Ashley, who bought the club in 2007 but has done little to lift it out of mediocrity, have celebrated the takeover and are now daring to dream of trophies after more than a decade. But the deal has enraged human rights defenders due to the appalling records of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. The majority owner of the consortium, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is providing 80 percent of the fund in the GBP 300 million deal. The PIF chairman is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who has been accused of ordering the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the kingdom's leader denies. A number of rights groups and Western intelligence agencies have directly implicated him in ordering the assassination of the dissident journalist. Prior to the takeover of the club, Khashoggi's fiancée Hatice Cengiz had also urged the Premier League not to allow the move to go through, citing the involvement of the crown prince in Khashoggi's murder.
There's further controversy surrounding the deal, as news reports suggest that the EPL's approval came after Saudi Arabia settled an alleged piracy dispute with Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sports, which owns rights to show Premier League matches in the Middle East. It was reported earlier in the year that beIN Sports had asked the Premier League clubs to block the deal because of piracy concerns. This piracy dispute remained as an impediment to the Saudi takeover bid for quite some time. Quoting sources, BBC Sport reported that an agreement between the Premier League and the consortium was found prior to the news emerging on October 7 this year.
Concerns about ignoring issues related to human rights were raised around the same time. The UK-based human rights organisation Amnesty International wrote to the Premier League to express its disquiet over the purchase of the Magpies, asking its chief executive, Richard Masters, to scrutinise Saudi Arabia's human rights records as part of the Premier League's owners' and directors' test. According to Amnesty, the phrase "human rights" doesn't even appear in the owners' and directors' test of the Premier League, despite English football supposedly adhering to FIFA standards. It said, "As with Formula One, elite boxing, golf or tennis, an association with top-tier football is a very attractive means of rebranding a country or person with a tarnished reputation. The Premier League needs to better understand the dynamic of sportswashing and tighten its ownership rules."
Finally, on October 7, the Premier League concluded that "the Saudi PIF was separate from the state," and therefore it had allowed the takeover to pass its owners' and directors' test. It said that it had received sound legal advice about adhering to rules. But the controversy drags on. The role of a sovereign state in another country's football league is bound to be under intense scrutiny.
The 19 other top-flight clubs have called for an emergency meeting this week. Media reports suggest that these clubs got united in opposition to the takeover of Newcastle and demanded to know whether any rules had been waived, and why they received so little notice. Despite these clubs' concern that the Premier League's brand could be damaged, it is too late to derail the takeover. Instead, with the arrival of a new set of billionaire owners, their immediate worry would be the prospect of pushing transfer fees and wages to new heights.
Supporters of the deal, however, argue that singling out football and the buying of Newcastle United by the Saudis is unfair as countries around the world continue all other trade and business activities with the kingdom. A BBC report says that the PIF has invested in some big names, such as Disney, Uber, Facebook, Starbucks, and pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Mark Middling, a senior lecturer of accounting at Northumbria University, who specialises in financial transparency in football, told The Guardian, "The UK still sells arms to Saudi Arabia and has business arrangements within the country. If you're going to trade with Saudi Arabia, to turn around and say they can't own one of our football clubs would be a bit hypocritical."
Amid this controversy, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a telephone conversation with the Saudi crown prince on the upcoming G20 and COP26 on October 11. A press release issued by 10 Downing Street noted, "They also discussed the opportunities for further boosting trade and investment between the UK and Saudi Arabia, ahead of next week's Global Investment Summit in London. The prime minister welcomed the recent launch of a consultation on a UK-Gulf Cooperation Council Free Trade Agreement."
Rights groups like Amnesty have been arguing for quite some time that some countries are opting to invest in sports to divert attention from their poor human rights records. They know that owning a football club allows you to build a relationship with key stakeholders. The term "sportswashing" has been increasingly used in relation to the changing of ownerships of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain by the UAE and Qatar, respectively, or Chelsea by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. A leading newspaper in Ireland, The Irish Times, cited a story about a match played three weeks ago between Manchester United and the Swiss club Young Boys of Bern, where the travelling fans unveiled a banner in the second half that read, "Beautiful Game." But immediately, the home fans unveiled a choreographed response, "Ugly Business."
Is football really becoming an ugly business?
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.
His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1