Human rights ‘sportswashed’ as Saudis take over Newcastle United

Dave Kellaway writes on the recent Saudi takeover at Newcastle United and highlights the role of 'sportswashing' in the beautiful game.

 

When I was growing up Newcastle United was still revered as a great F.A Cup team, winning it six times but even then their glory days were fading. Growing up we knew about their great players like Jackie Milburn and players from the region like the Charlton brothers who have marked the English game. Their last major trophy was the F.A Cup in 1955 although they made some finals in the 1990s and went through a famous revival under Kevin Keegan. They were relegated in 2009 and again in 2016 and in recent years have struggled to avoid another drop into the second tier. 

One of the earliest professional clubs, they have spent 89 seasons in the top flight. From 2007 to today Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, put money into the club in an attempt to revitalise its fortunes, without much impact. Indeed the Geordie fans became increasingly exasperated with the cockney entrepreneur.  Despite having little success the club is still one of the best-supported clubs in the premiership – it is the seventeenth highest-ranking club in the world for revenue generation. It is still a club very much based in its local and working-class community compared to global brands like Manchester United.

Remember this is a regime that cold-bloodedly allowed Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, to enter their embassy in Turkey and then literally dismembered him in order to make him disappear.

Given its strong supporter base and historic brand identity, you can see how it could appeal to the Saudi Arabian regime’s investors. They were looking around for a leading football club as a vehicle to project its global reach and to ‘sportswash’ its appalling human rights record. Remember this is a regime that cold-bloodedly allowed Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, to enter their embassy in Turkey and then literally dismembered him in order to make him disappear. Its leadership have always rejected any responsibility. As a hereditary autocracy, Saudi Arabia is no democracy and women’s rights are notoriously restricted.  Both Britain and the US see it as a key ally in the region and sell it billions of dollars worth of arms.

For the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, £300 million to take it off Ashley is a snip and if it succeeds in bolstering its international image then it is money well spent for them. Further millions are being earmarked to buy the best players and coaches.

The response of the Premiership authorities and nearly all the other clubs have been just short of apoplectic. Not because of a sudden rush of democratic or human rights sentiments but rather out of a concern that all this Saudi money will give Newcastle an unfair advantage over the other clubs. Nobody made much of a fuss when Abu Dhabi sovereign funds bought up Manchester City and turned it into the most successful club in just a few years. Then we have the next FIFA World Cup in Qatar which has a human rights record which might be marginally less bad than Saudi Arabia’s. But it still has been responsible for the unnecessary deaths of 1000s construction workers from South Asia currently building the stadiums for the tournament there. It is an open secret that Qatar bought the votes to secure the venue for the next world cup. Saudi Arabia is a fierce rival of Qatar and has only recently restored relations this year after breaking off most ties in 2017. Consequently, this move into the premiership is part of this competition.

The bankroll for premiership clubs has not just come from the Middle East. Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, made his first serious money during the opening up of the Russian state economy to private capital. He basically got his men to scour Siberia and other places to buy up cheaply the shares that had been assigned to thousands of workers. He obviously has had an ongoing arrangement with the Putin regime which is far from transparent too. 

The Premiership is today one of the clearest expressions of corporate global capitalism. Hardly any of the clubs are now owned by what used to be the local businessmen made good like Jack Walker at Blackburn Rovers or John Hall at Newcastle. Significantly both these clubs were relegated as the funds of these entrepreneurs were no longer sufficient to maintain a club in the top flight. Some of the biggest clubs make a lot more money than they ever did because of the global TV, merchandising and gate revenue.  The irresistible concentration of capital and relentless competition now means the English Premiership is the global league sucking the resources and players out of many of the other national leagues around the world. Just like Amazon Google and the tech giants.

Most Newcastle fans have been jubilant about all the new money. For those supporters who are not much concerned with politics or international human rights all they can see is the chance to finally compete on even terms with clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. 

The Premiership management and the other clubs were particularly concerned about irregular third-party sponsorship with the Newcastle deal. Essentially this is when a company owning a club pretends to bring in commercial sponsors but really these are just emanations of the original company. All these sorts of regulations like the attempts of national states to control tax dodging and avoidance,  are always very difficult to implement when faced with big corporations’ huge resources and legal power.

Most Newcastle fans have been jubilant about all the new money. For those supporters who are not much concerned with politics or international human rights all they can see is the chance to finally compete on even terms with clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. We have seen a lot of Bedouin headdresses and cardboard scimitars and even really tasteless banter about taking blood money. Other voices on Tyneside, including some Newcastle fans, have criticised the Saudi regime. Football fans elsewhere have also shown a greater consciousness, so we had this magnificent banner (see below) from Crystal Palace fans. Unbelievably this was referred to the police supposedly for stirring up ethnic tensions although this was later dropped.

Football authorities are now scrambling to try and refine or redefine the so-called owners’ test that sets down criteria for the legitimate ownership of Premiership clubs. At present, the owners’ test applied to every individual named as having a direct role in controlling a Premier League club, does not make any mention of human rights. At the moment the test only covers things like conflicts of interest or criminal convictions. This week, after some delay, they finally agreed to meet with Amnesty to discuss a draft proposal drawn up by the human rights body. It is difficult to see how this can retrospectively deal with the Newcastle takeover.

It would be great if individual players spoke out about questionable owners just like Rashford or others who have spoken out about poverty and racism.

It is good if other football fans take up the banner from the Crystal Palace supporters and use the takeover to raise democratic and human rights issues in the football grounds. There is probably scope to do this in relation to other clubs like Manchester City and questionable regimes such as Qatar too. It would be great if individual players spoke out about questionable owners just like Rashford or others who have spoken out about poverty and racism.

Rolling back how big capital, vicious regimes, dirty or blood money control the beautiful game is a much more difficult task. It would require a completely different organisation of TV rights and tough national state regulation. Fans here could not expect to see all the world’s best players if the resources available or permitted to each club were severely cut.

The imbalance of wealth between top-level football and all other levels needs changing if we want to encourage more participation and a healthier game where there is a fairer competition involving clubs outside the big six. Redistributive taxation is important too. Professional footballers, who mostly come from working-class and black families, should not be singled out. However, millionaire salaries should incur much greater tax alongside the bankers, lawyers, entertainers or other professionals. If we are going to talk about salary caps in sport this should apply across the economy. We have a minimum wage, why not a maximum one?

We have a minimum wage, why not a maximum one?

Certainly, any Labour opposition worth its name should be developing an alternative policy on football and sport for all. Fundamental change like trying to properly fix the climate requires us to challenge how capital organises our whole society.

Finally, Saudi Arabia is not just trying to ‘sportswash’ its human rights record with football. For years it has been trying to develop golf tournaments in the Middle East and build an Asian tour. Greg Norman, the Aussie golfing legend, to his shame, has been brought in to promote this new initiative. Golfers are being offered eye-watering appearance fees just for turning up to these tournaments.  

Sporting authorities cannot choose to ignore the questionable actions of nation-states in a quest for ever-greater revenue. Sport can bring people together, can enrich both culturally and economically but not if it is on the broken backs of labour from afar or from the screams of those detained, tortured and murdered in a tyrants prison. If anything good comes out of the Saudi Arabian ownership of Newcastle United it will be more people asking questions about where the money has come from. 


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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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