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Newcastle United takeover: a win for sportswashing or football?

On October 7th, a £300m takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) was completed. A Saudi-led consortium completed the deal for the Tyneside football club, almost two years after political and commercial controversies put an end to original talks. The takeover marks a key turning point for Newcastle and its fans. However, beyond the surface level of joy and celebration amongst Newcastle fans, the takeover has been labelled by critics as sportswashing: another attempt to mask Saudi Arabia’s contentious history through sporting investment. Whilst it is impossible to truly discern the motives behind the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) decision, onlookers should be cautious of Saudi Arabian motives to drive status and disguise their human rights record.

The deal

Talks between Amanda Staveley, and her firm PCP Capital Partners, and Mike Ashley, Newcastle owner at the time, began in 2018. Talks failed and Ashley described them as “a complete waste of time”, shattering the hopes of Newcastle fans at the time. However, Staveley persevered and in 2019, she first pitched the idea of purchasing Newcastle United to Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund (PIF). The initial deal between PIF and Newcastle United collapsed at the final hurdle: the Premier League decided that the deal could not go ahead, given Saudi Arabia’s involvement in a pirate TV network that stole footage of events contracted to Qatar’s beIN Sports. However, following renewed relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia at the end of 2020, Saudi Arabia pledged to lift blocks on Qatar’s TV network and to investigate piracy. 

With the final barrier to the deal now removed, the original deal was completed. Newcastle United was sold by Mike Ashley for £305m to the PIF (80% stake), PCP Partners/Amanda Staveley (10% stake) and RB Sports & Media/Jamie Reuben (10% stake). 

Significance to Tyneside

The significance of the deal for Newcastle fans, and the city as a whole, cannot be understated. The Magpies have not won a major trophy since 1955 and the takeover has rekindled hope amongst the glory-starved fanbase. Having faced the injustice of retail tycoon Mike Ashley’s underinvestment for 14 years, it did not take long for fans to celebrate the transfer of ownership. In 2007, following his purchase of Newcastle, Ashley remarked “I want to have fun and win some trophies”. The irony of the statement 14 years on is clear: his tenure saw Newcastle relegated twice (having only been relegated 4 other times in their 129-year history), money spent extremely begrudgingly, and club legends alienated. In the words of journalist Adam Bate, he turned Newcastle into “a zombie club”. It is therefore unsurprising that around 15,000 fans gathered in front of Newcastle’s St James’ Park on the night of October 7th to celebrate the takeover news.

However, whilst it is undeniable that the takeover marks a new era of hope for Newcastle fans, and potentially the creation of a club that may soon be able to compete with the league’s top clubs, remarks of “sportswashing” juxtapose news of the takeover.

Sportswashing

To define the term, sportswashing is the process by which a nation-state (or corporation or individual) seeks to improve its reputation, often in Western countries or major media markets, through sporting investment. It is a method of changing the subject of conversation about that nation-state, diverting attention to sporting events that can generate excitement amongst the public and media.

Qatar & UAE

Investment in sport is not a new concept to the Gulf States. Qatar is spending $200bn on infrastructure for the World Cup and its state-backed fund controls France’s top football club Paris Saint Germain; Abu Dhabi has spent $40bn on a Formula One track, and a billionaire member of the nation’s ruling family owns Manchester City. Where nations play such a significant role within these sports, it is easy for fans to forget Qatar is a place where women need the permission of a male guardian to sign a contract, or that the UAE is a place where a woman can be kidnapped by her father if she fails to adhere to strict gender role of society, where freedom of speech and the press is still forbidden. Adam Coogle, a Deputy Director at the Human Rights Watch, summarises the effect of sportswashing well: “It’s challenging sometimes to get, for example, members of Parliament from Manchester or other city leaders of Manchester to criticize the UAE. They wouldn’t do it. It’s too dangerous because all the Manchester City fans are going to come after them and the UAE may get offended and [threaten] the investment.”

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is also no stranger to sportswashing: a report by Grant Liberty in March 2021 revealed the nation had spent $1.5bn on high-profile sporting events from chess to golf, and from tennis to a ten-year deal with Formula One. However, prior to the Newcastle takeover, unlike Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia had not acquired an overseas sports team. The acquisition however provides further scope for Saudi Arabia to mask its controversies, from the butchering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to ongoing human rights abuse, particularly amongst the British public. 

Other motives

It is perhaps too narrow-minded to fully attribute the takeover to motives of sportswashing. Football has been popular in Saudi Arabia for years, particularly Premier League football, and under Crown Prince Mohammed some of the regime’s strictest elements have been relaxed. For example, men and women are able to watch football together in cafes throughout Riyadh and Jeddah. It is no longer completely alien to embrace elements of Western Culture. 

Sportswashing should also not be confused with a desire for status. Competition amongst the Gulf States and appearing powerful on a global stage has certainly been a key factor in Gulf State sporting investments, as demonstrated by similar investments in Formula One by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Saudi Arabia was the last out of a trio with Qatar and UAE to purchase a major football club, and so a desire to keep up with its neighbours was clearly at least a major motive for the PIF and Saudi Arabia.

Finally from a British point of view, Newcastle should receive funding at a level it has never previously experienced, driving greater competition with the Premier League and reinforcing the league’s position as the wealthiest and most popular tournament in the world.

Regardless of the true motives of the takeover, it is undeniable that underpinning the takeover and whatever benefits it promises is a sentiment of sportswashing (at least amongst critics), just as the 2022 World Cup had and will continue to have.

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