Sportswashed Away: Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle United Takeover is Almost Complete

© REUTERS / HANDOUTSaudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 23, 2018.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony for the 95th batch of cadets from the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 23, 2018. - Sputnik International, 1920, 06.10.2021
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Saudi Arabia’s long and winding pursuit of Newcastle United looks to be coming to a close. With an agreement between the Premier League and the Saudis on the horizon, the story will once again shift to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the rise of ‘sportswashing.’
One of the final hurdles in securing the deal was an agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and beIN Sports, a Qatari network, that lifted a four-year broadcasting ban of the network in Saudi Arabia over a diplomatic dispute. Saudi Arabia also said they would stop housing and promoting illegal streams of beIN Sports, and there have been discussions over settling a lawsuit that claims beIN lost $1 billion in revenue due to the harboring of illegal streams.
The deal to purchase Newcastle is suggested to be around £300 million. More than double the £134 million current owner Mike Ashley paid to purchase the club.
Newcastle supporters have been itching for new ownership for ages. When Mike Ashley bought the team in 2007, he endeared himself to the fans by watching games amongst them in the stands. However, his inability to turn the team into a consistent winner eventually soured his relationship with the fanbase. With the news that the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, was close to a takeover in April 2020, Newcastle fans began to dream of trophies again. However, the Premier League wouldn’t sell the team without Saudi Arabia lifting the bans on beIN Sport, which set off a year-long battle.
The phenomenon of ‘sportswashing’ is not new, but it has become ever more present in top-flight European football. The idea is simple: some entity with questionable ethics buys a sports team, invests heavily in the team’s success, and garnes a massive amount of goodwill. For much of history, this was carried out by individuals, but more recently, it has gone to the state level.
In 2008, Manchester City was purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group, a private equity company owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. The ownership group came in, spent heavily, and trophies ensued. Similarly, in 2011, Paris Saint-Germaine was purchased by Qatar Sports Investments, a shareholding organization that has direct ties up the ladder of Qatari politics. Almost like clockwork, QSI came in, spent heavily, and turned PSG into a global power.
The allure of an oil-rich nation purchasing a club is obvious. The owners have near-limitless resources and have shown a willingness to turn their teams’ into some of the best clubs in the world. However, there is a darker side to it all, and it starts with a simple question: why invest billions into a football club?
Professional sports franchises are good investments, but they’re not as good an investment as getting in at the ground floor of a tech start-up. A football club has a massive amount of overhead, and if you want to compete for the biggest trophies, you need to consistently outspend the opposition. If you’re in charge of the finances of a massive portfolio, buying a professional football club is not at the top of your list, but what if that isn’t the goal?
What if the goal is to prove to a global audience that you’re good and ‘sportswashing’ is the route? Both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have well-documented human rights violations, and are both non-democratic states. In short, they’re the types of regimes that usually draw the ire of Western democracies. However, when one regime takes over and supports your favorite team, suddenly they don’t look so bad.
‘Sportswashing’ doesn’t just stop at building a strong team. Both PSG and Manchester City have invested heavily in their communities. The idea is to buy people’s support to the point where it becomes blind. With Newcastle’s likely takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the same cycle will repeat itself. Ownership will come in, invest heavily, and trophies will likely be raised. It’s not meant to erase the human rights violations carried out in Saudi Arabia, it’s just meant to make you ask, do I care as long as Newcastle is winning?
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