I looked at the twitter feed for NUFC Fans Against Sports-washing last week and it was pretty unedifying in honesty.
Criticism of the group and its then planned protest was savage so I was slightly concerned at how it would go prior to the Chelsea game. To my knowledge, it passed without incident but as a means of winning supporters’ hearts and minds, it missed the target. More crushing for the organisers is how weakly the protest featured on supporters’ radar.
I don’t support this group which I suppose in the absolutist perspective of some, makes me an apologist for one of the most oppressive and cruel regimes on earth. Gulp.
Unlike the view I’ve heard propagated last week that we supporters need to be educated about the Saudi regime and that will be enough for us to wake up from our slumbers to witness our beloved football club used in a tawdry PR exercise for that nation-state, I hold a contrary opinion.
It is a presumption on my part but the language used by the group is redolent of the hours I wasted as a young lad in various far left-wing meetings (upstairs in The Bridge being a common venue for various doomed forms of insurrection) listening to well-spoken students lecture an unconvinced welder from Hebburn about the imminent international workers uprising. Well, it got me out the house on a quiet and I used my bus-pass so …
But seriously, there’s a tone within the hectoring, which presumes a greater level of wisdom to us the unthinking B&W masses and in my view that is misplaced.
Lads, lasses … we know Saudi Arabia can be awful beyond comprehension. We know that well enough.
The education thing? We’ve had that covered for a while.
Firstly: Sports-washing. I don’t doubt this could be a potential by-product of owning a hitherto under-achieving basket case of a football club in a depressed part of the UK but really, honestly, seriously? You think? Where has this ever worked before?
It is only a very small part of the story as to why the Saudis got into football and why they bought Newcastle United.
The truth of the motivation behind the Saudis is less prosaic than national image rehabilitation. It is far more to do with growing an asset from the (cough) modest £350m paid for Newcastle United to something like the £4Bn Chelsea was recently sold for and a similar amount Liverpool are rumoured to be on the market for now FSG want shot of them.
That’s not my opinion – it is the one expressed by Newcastle United and Public Investment Fund main man – click here
All of this fits within the strategy to grow the value of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund click here and as one of its minor assets we are now within scope of that and in the early days of investment to make it happen.
Everything is more or less sweetness and light in the Newcastle United garden right now as the PIF strategy of investment aligns with our hopes for the club. Currently, it is a happy marriage of convenience. Hell, there are people on social media telling the directors of our club that they love them. I know, I shake my head at it all at times too.
The current love-in might not always be the case but for the moment let’s see where it takes us – we’ve got Bruno in the middle and all that.
Those who listen to the TF Podcasts know from last summer, Alex Hurst organised several podcasts featuring learned academics and others with expertise in understanding the social, economic and cultural dynamics at play in Saudi Arabia.
Those podcasts explained the strategic desire to encourage sport per se amongst the younger Saudi generation (I learned Saudi has an epidemic of diabetes) as well as add to the cultural offer in the country which is modernising in a fashion.
I am in no way going to claim owning Newcastle United is a step towards a western style liberal democracy because that is a presumption based upon an arrogance this is what people around the world yearn for.
Well, I mean who wouldn’t want Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and other public school wallopers running their lives?
Those podcasts in particular provided an education of Saudi society and where Newcastle United fits within it, which isn’t really that significantly as it turns out. We are a very small piece in a very big jigsaw.
It has been said before but I don’t think there’s a greater exercise in public relations management than members of the Saudi royal family riding up to Buckingham Palace in a gold horse-drawn coach to be met at the end of a very long red carpet by the sovereign head of the UK royal family for a full diplomatic reception with every regal bell and whistle, attended by senior members of the government with speeches fawning over the guests. You know like the one Yasir Al Rumayan was at last year – click here
That’s a bit more meaningful a validation of nation-hood than grainy footage of young Geordies having impromptu raves outside SJP after the game and upstairs on the slow bus back to Whitley Bay from town.
It is also rather more a spectacular event than all of the Boxing bouts, Formula 1 and Golf tournaments held in Saudi Arabia, though they are similarly part of that wider economic and social strategy that may not be calibrated to make the great unthinking morass of the west think they’re dead canny really.
I had wondered about how the NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing organisers approach the macro-economic and security dependencies that exist between the UK and Saudi Arabia. I’m guessing many of you reading this are aware of the current international angst regarding energy security but this extends to close relationships between our intelligence services and those in Saudi too. If you hadn’t noticed the world is a dangerous place, particularly the tinder-box of the Middle East and this country is not immune from its effects.
Whatever we might think of Saudi in terms of its abysmal human rights record, its enemies, namely the Iranian state are our enemies too. We also have a passing interest in Saudi oil.
I’m stating this as a matter of fact rather than preference but the UK does billions in trade with Saudi. It’s not 18 months since SABIC – click here – made a £850m investment within a Teesside petrochemical facility click here and safeguarded the jobs of hundreds of workers.
I’ve not heard a peep in protest from down the A19 but fair play to the Boro fans with their soppy flag they knocked up after the Newcastle United takeover.
Although interest on Wearside in Saudi Arabian human rights abuses grows exponentially with every Newcastle United win there remains a cognitive dissonance down the road about the BAE Sunderland plant which employs c.500 people directly in skilled, well-paid jobs and likely treble that number in the local supply chain.
Their product is highly sophisticated ordnance sold to the Saudi government and which undoubtedly has found itself used within the Yemen conflict.
I’ll put it more bluntly – there is a factory in Sunderland that makes death bombs that are dropped on people which kill them. That’s how Big Davy from Pallion is driving around in a lovely new BMW. The Wearsiders Mak’em and the Saudis Tak’em.
When the factory was opened the local big cheeses wet themselves with excitement – click here and this breathless piece in the Sunderland Echo about job opportunities – click here – that almost had me breaking into a really bad version of Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding. You will note the lack of concern for what happens ultimately at the end of the BAE forward export line.
But then all that that was before Newcastle United broke its transfer record by signing Alexander Isak with money from the same source as provides work for the BAE plant at Washington.
I give these two examples not to excuse the Saudi-backed ownership of Newcastle United but to yet again explain the entanglements that have long existed between our two countries for better or worse over the decades. They are also the tip of the ice-berg. There is Saudi money everywhere in the UK. It is absurd Newcastle United should be treated in isolation from all of that and held to a higher moral standard.
And by the way, I don’t begrudge Big Davy from Pallion his BMW. Well, I do if he’s on a minty message-board disguised as Dave-FTM-1973-6-in-Row-Marra banging on about how terrible the Mags are while he waits to go back on the day-shift in the bomb –making industry.
In a rather curt exchange on social media I asked one of the organisers of the NUFC Fans Against Sports-washing if he would advocate a whole-scale breaking off of diplomatic and economic relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia and he told me he would.
That’s a steep moral high ground to climb upon, so far play to him for his high minded stance – sadly it would be others that would pay a heavy price for his virtue as to take that action would be nationally catastrophic on so many different levels of foolishness.
Neither would it make a blind bit of difference to the lives of Saudi citizens given UK PLC needs Saudi far more than Saudi needs UK PLC (as a recent €12Bn order for Fighter Jets lodged from Saudi with the French government demonstrates).
And what if the Saudis took fright at the NUFC Fans Against Sports-washing group and decided to dispense with Newcastle United and move their interest elsewhere?
Would that prevent the horrific human rights infringements in KSA? Would Prince Mohamed bin Salman be so devastated at being run out of NE1 by a supporter, er, awakening, he would in response set the country on a course to deliver a western-style liberal utopia?
I apologise for the sarcasm.
I strongly believe the group is campaigning on a misplaced premise – in that sports-washing is not the main strategic goal of the Public Investment Fund, that Newcastle United is a small piece of a complex jigsaw and well, is largely at the more vanilla end of their business dealings in the UK (e.g. defence contracts).
But I absolutely support their right to protest. Even if they have garnered no support from the Newcastle United Supporters Trust or any of the club’s independent fan media. Their’s is unquestionably a minority view but it is correct it is heard and respected.
I don’t think they should be abused on social media and nor should hollow accusations made of their football loyalties be thrown n their direction simply to undermine their argument.
I have a fundamental agreement with their view the Saudis should not own Newcastle United in an ideal world. I agree with that in the same way I don’t believe the Glazers, Sheik Mansour, Boehly, previously Abramovich, Kroenke, Gold and Sullivan, Fenway Sports Group, Moshiri and any of the rest of that motley crew should own any of our football clubs. I remain convinced a much better model of football ownership and governance is found in the Bundesliga. But I’ve lost any belief that is in any way deliverable in this country now unfortunately.
I have a moral agreement with NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing that the Saudi state is appalling and that it commits heinous crimes against its own people.
I’m guessing you reading this share that abhorrence. To that end we should join Amnesty International who campaign with some skill against the inhumanities of the KSA and many others who are similarly interconnected with the UK.
You can join here –
I won’t waste my time with NUFC Against Sportswashing for the reasons I hope I’ve set out above and none of that makes me or the vast majority of supporters bad people.Or them for that matter. I believe they are well-meaning.
There are better ways of challenging what goes on in Saudi Arabia and none of them involve campaigning on an at best dubious, western-centric notion of sports-washing that even given in the remotest possibility of success would not make an earthly scrap of difference to the people of Saudi Arabia.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
Michael Martin, @TFMick1892