Anger mounts after the sale of football club to Saudis

October 17, 2021 - 18:57

TEHRAN - Since the English Premier League announced their approval of a Saudi Arabian bid to buy Newcastle United Football Club, a barrage of condemnation had been poured in by Human Rights groups who are furious with the takeover.

Civil society actors have also expressed concern over what they see as the Saudi Arabian Kingdom’s attempt to “sport wash” its negative international image. 

Amnesty International says ever since this deal was first talked about, “we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football.” 

“Saudi ownership of St James’ Park (Newcastle’s stadium) was always as much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government, as it was about football,” adding that “the Premier League needs to understand the dynamic of sportswashing better and tighten its ownership rules.”

It comes on the backdrop of a recent report this year that revealed Saudi Arabia had spent $1.5bn on high-profile international sporting events in a bid to bolster its reputation. The research conducted by the Human Rights Organization Grant Liberty documents the Kingdom’s $650m ten-year deal with Formula One, among many other agreements clinched. These include chess championships to golf, tennis, and $60m alone on the Saudi Cup, the world’s richest horse-racing event with prize money of $20m.

For more than a year, Human rights groups have lobbied English football chiefs to reject the takeover, warning it is part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to “sportswash” its human rights record.

Amnesty’s head of campaigns in the UK, Felix Jakens, says the “decision shows that English football is open for business when it comes to sportswashing. Ever since this deal was first talked about, Amnesty has said it represents a very clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record using the glamour of the Premier League.”

The controversial agreement finally got a green light from the Premier League after settling a piracy dispute over television rights in West Asia between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The £300 million ($408 million) takeover is led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and while the Premier League has said that they had received “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club” the Crown Prince’s position as chairman of the Fund hasn’t gone unnoticed.

PIF’s website reads, “under the chairmanship and guidance of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Board is responsible for overseeing PIF’s long-term strategy, investment policy, and performance.” 

The takeover shows that the UK is open for business when it comes to sportswashing.

Human Rights Watch says the takeover is a wake up call on rights and that sportswashing cannot conceal the fate of those jailed and abused back home in Saudi Arabia. 

It says three years ago, Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has marked this grim anniversary by using the Saudi sovereign wealth fund he chairs to buy Premier League football club Newcastle United for a reported £300 million. But as many Newcastle fans cheer the news, women’s rights activists and political prisoners are languishing in Saudi jails. 

Hosting major sporting events is a significant part of Saudi Arabia’s “sportswashing” strategy. It is essentially an effort to distract from its grave human rights abuses by taking over events that celebrate human achievement. Buying a Premier League club is perhaps Saudi leaders’ most high-profile effort so far to launder their “appalling” human rights record.

The international organization also says for those who call football “the beautiful game,” Saudi’s Newcastle takeover is a wake-up call. Fans, athletes, and journalists who don’t want their sport and favorite clubs tarnished with ugly human rights abuses should demand that the English Football Association and the Premier League adopt and immediately implement a human rights policy.” 

The Saudi tribal monarchy has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this strategy. High-profile sporting events hosted in the Kingdom recently include the Heavyweight World Boxing Title bout, the Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament, World Wrestling pay-per-view professional wrestling events, and the Dakar Rally, a popular desert race.  

Saudi Arabian human rights group ALQST accused the Premier League of being driven only by money and employing “profoundly inadequate” criteria for assessing human rights considerations in the wake of Newcastle United being acquired by a Saudi-led consortium.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, now owns 80% of the club, with the rest divided between RB Sports & Media and PCP Capital Partners.

While some fans are cheering the takeover, hoping it will help turn the Premier League club’s fortunes around, several human rights groups have questioned the Premier League as well for allowing the takeover to go ahead, pointing to its complicity, having been informed in advanced about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

ALQST acting director Nabhan al-Hanashi says, “for Saudi Arabia, the deal shows the success of their PR strategy to invest in sporting ventures in a bid to clean up their image. For the Premier League... they are effectively inviting other abusive leaders to follow suit.”

“[The Premier League’s] reasoning that PIF is a separate entity from the Saudi state is farcical, one only has to look at who chairs the PIF, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself, whose rule has been marked by the most brutal forms of repression.”

Omid Memarian, director of communications at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), says, “the purpose of this investment is to infiltrate in areas where people invest a lot of emotions... people want to cheer for teams owned by responsible owners and not those who are involved in atrocities.”

DAWN was founded by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. A U.S. intelligence report concluded that the Saudi crown prince had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi.

Memariam added that “people should know that the government investing in this club has murdered a journalist and not been held accountable for that.”

Global football’s governing body, FIFA, has a Human Rights Policy, and robust due diligence should have been conducted on the owners and directors before Saudi Arabia was allowed to buy the Newcastle club. Rights groups have long called on the British Premier League to consider human rights records and adopt a comprehensive human rights policy when evaluating potential buyers of football clubs.

Football fans need to look past the wealth that Newcastle hopes will be invested in its team. The documentation by Human Rights Groups shows the darker side of Saudi Arabia, with widespread rights abuses including mass arrests and detention, a crackdown on dissent and free speech, surveillance and hacking, and jailing of the Kingdom’s most prominent women’s rights activists. 

After so much delay and dispute, the British Premier League’s reasons for approving the deal are also still seriously questionable. And this all comes while Saudi Arabia continues its war on Yemen with indiscriminate bombing campaigns that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. According to the United Nations, the airstrikes go hand in hand with the Kingdom’s all out blockade on its southern neighbor that has left Yemen, according to the United Nations, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

As a result, most of the population is on the brink of famine; but that does not appear to bother the British Premier League or Newcastle Football Club.

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