In the second part of his two-part special on Newcastle United / Saudi Arabia, YOUSEF HATEM (@yousef_1892) sets out some thoughts on how we can continue to engage with these issues constructively.
In part one (link here), I mentioned that I thought the price of continued participation in these discussions was to understand Saudi Arabia in its proper context. Without nuance, the “debate” becomes immediately tedious. Many are tired of it already. They can hardly be blamed. Bunkers are regularly retreated to. There’s the “Down With This Sort of Thing!” bunker, its inhabitants wishing in vain that the world, complete with dicey chaps like MBS, would just stop. There’s also the whataboutery bunker, for whom Saudi Arabia cannot be bad because bad things happen in Britain, and other club owners aren’t angels. Neither has much to commend it. Bunkers rarely do. There is little moral virtue to be found in the first bunker – just people trying to make peace with their own consciences. And, as to the second bunker, if you think Boris Johnson’s various peccadilloes are as objectively “bad” as the cold-blooded murder of a journalist in a foreign embassy, I can’t really help you, while, even in the cesspit of modern club ownership, our owners are among the less benign.
The other unhelpful contributions to the “debate” are the petty online squabbles between Newcastle fans, and journalists – we all know the ones, Messrs Delaney, Panja, Crafton, Holt, Auclair etc – whenever the journalist in question decides to raise the issue of our ownership. If this is your kind of thing, well, thanks for doing your part to trivialise and reduce public discussion of serious issues to the level of a playground spat about who pulled whose hair. I hope you’re happy being Elon Musk’s bitch. Remember how we should have had an urgent debate about migration policy, but instead were treated to fatuous pseudo-news about a tweet by Gary Lineker? Somehow, when we ought to have had a news story about poor brown people dying at sea, we ended up with one in which every participant was a rich white person living on land. That’s the kind of thing that happens when sight of the big picture is lost.
The main problem, here, is that so much “debate” about Newcastle United and Saudi Arabia is backward-looking. The takeover was nearly two years ago. The Saudi ownership is a fact. I’d suggest that, if any kind of debate is to remain fresh and interesting (instead of tired and repetitive), it’s much more helpful to use the question of our ownership as a springboard for talking about issues which are dynamic and constantly developing – the main one being, perhaps, what Saudi investment in top-level sport might mean for human rights in Saudi Arabia.
The word “sports-washing” has been used so much that it feels almost unnecessary to be reminded of the definition, but let’s nonetheless bear the Encyclopaedia Britannica definition in mind: it is the use of sport by an individual or a government to promote or burnish its reputation, especially amid controversy or scandal. We are, of course, a “sports-washing” project, by that definition. Our overlords didn’t buy us because they like stottie, bridges or Sam Fender: they did so as part of a wider quest for global prestige. But let’s break this down. In whose eyes is Saudi Arabia being rehabilitated? Those idiots who wear Arab dress and wave Saudi flags in away ends are unlikely to have been particularly troubled by – or even aware of – Saudi brutality in the first place. No washing needed there. What about in the eyes of Western governments and power brokers? No washing needed there either: the ties between the UK and Saudi Arabia ran deep, well before the Newcastle takeover. So, in whose eyes? If anyone’s – then, well, yours and mine. Those of us with an interest in football as well as politics, which means a subset of football (and Newcastle) fans, as well as pundits and journalists. We’re the ones who can be sports-washed. But we have our agency, our intelligence and our independence of thought – or at least we should do. Washing machines don’t always work. We aren’t bystanders in any of this. And even then – is anyone of sound mind really taking the view that, say, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was probably alright, because we got to the Carabao Cup final? Or, as I think more likely, are we (by which, again, I merely mean those of us who find this kind of thing moderately interesting) capable of holding multiple views simultaneously? Those Saudis, you know, they might know how to run a football club, but they’re still mean bastards.
Of course sports-washing is a real thing, and it’s disgusting to witness tyrants wearing smart suits and strolling around corporate hospitality areas looking respectable. But it does not follow that investment in football clubs by people of questionable morality is necessarily a bad thing, if one takes the forward-looking view, which I do. The question is whether, by allowing, say, Saudi Arabia to invest in major Western assets, you’re making it more likely that Saudi Arabia can continue to brutally repress its citizens, or you’re bringing Saudi Arabia more into the international fold, forcing it to modernise. I don’t know the definitive answer to that. But I do know this much. If we really want to express our disapproval of Saudi Arabia by depriving their government of the ability to buy – say – football clubs like Newcastle United, then this achieves little, unless combined with a wider cultural, economic and sporting boycott. It worked in apartheid South Africa, but only because it was co-ordinated and serious, and included support given to the anti-apartheid movement. There is no prospect of such a boycott of Saudi Arabia. They’ve got a fair bit of oil, after all. There may be justifiable distaste, in polite circles, at the sight of Yasir Al-Rumayyan in the post-match photo in the dressing-room, but would it really advance the cause of Saudi women, for example, if Al-Rumayyan weren’t to be in a position where he could do that? Would it do anything, besides making some of us feel a little less queasy? The evidence that it would is conspicuous by its absence.
None of this means that allowing Saudi Arabia to invest in whatever it likes – and the level of investment in sport is now truly remarkable – will advance the cause of Saudi modernisation. The proof of the pudding, and all that. But if it does transpire that a more tolerant Saudi Arabia emerges (all things are relative: we are talking about the abolition of public beheadings, not a nationwide proliferation of gender-neutral toilets) then it may end up being said, with hindsight, that the admission of Saudi Arabia as a major player in the global sporting, cultural and entertainment business, had something to do with it.
It’s impossible to disagree with the likes of Delaney, Panja, Crafton, Holt and Auclair when they point out that the Saudi acquisition of Newcastle United is a clear example of sports-washing. Saudi Arabia has not emerged from the darkness. The view that maybe, just maybe, it’s worth seeing whether they might modernise, involves a leap of faith as much as anything else, and reasonable people can disagree as to whether the House of Saud is deserving of such faith. But the problem with the critique of everything as “sports-washing” is that it is fundamentally backwards-looking, seeing the ownership of, say, Newcastle United, as a reward for bad behaviour, rather than a potential harbinger of something better. And, if it does transpire that a newer, less religiously dogmatic Saudi Arabia should emerge, then allowing bad men to strut around like peacocks for a while, waving their dicks around at the Champions League knockouts, will have been a price worth paying.
I don’t know what degree of faith we should have in Saudi Arabia and its capacity for change. It has been a major player in international relations for some eighty years, and yet it remains defined by its puritanical backwardness. There is a long charge sheet, and plenty of reasons to believe that its seat at the top table of professional sport will not result in the light being let in. We’ll just have to wait and see. And to watch. And to continue to engage with Saudi Arabia as a real place.
The other issue that remains interesting is the one about nation states (or their sovereign wealth funds) being allowed to own football clubs. This isn’t a point about human rights: it’s a point about fair competition. Nation states can endow their sovereign wealth funds with as much money as they want. The funds receive cosy treatment abroad. Governments, and public bodies or companies who want to remain in good standing with governments, find themselves needing to act (or are pressurised to act) in an accommodating fashion towards the sovereign wealth funds. To do otherwise means risking a diplomatic incident, given the closeness between the fund and the state. So, the Tories lobbied the Premier League to approve the Newcastle takeover. The British government, unsurprisingly, wanted a major British institution to welcome investment by PIF, in the interests of maintaining UK-Saudi relations. Remember “transparency”, which we were apparently so keen on back in the dog days of 2021? It would have been about as much help to our takeover as subsidence beneath the Milburn Stand and a Japanese knotweed infestation at Benton. In fact, significantly worse. We never wanted it. Not really. Not if we’re being honest.
We may never know how much the lobbying affected the takeover. Two things, however, can be said. Firstly, lobbying is often effective and would not exist if this were not the case. Secondly, if our prospective buyer had been – say – a private equity fund, a currency speculator or an online gambling tycoon, there would have been no such lobbying. When it comes to investing in top-level sport, states and their affiliated wealth funds have political advantages that private enterprises – however wealthy or successful – do not.
I would rather (through my black and white goggles) complain about this from a position of Newcastle United being part of the problem. The fact is that, as Nesrine Malik recently emphasised in an excellent Guardian article recently (link here), there’s no point hating – or trying in vain to exclude – individual players: it’s the game itself which is rotten. We created money so that we had a universal, depersonalised medium of exchange. Now, we find that Churchill’s face is always worth a fiver, whichever wallet you find him in. The Saudis’ money is as good as anyone else’s.
So, how to end? There isn’t really a message to take away. This article doesn’t amount to much more than musings about Newcastle United, Saudi Arabia, and suggestions about certain discussions which are still interesting and worth having. There were plenty of us who harboured doubts about the takeover – who said, including in this fanzine, that we would continue to be interested in the intersection between sport, politics and morality, even once Newcastle United reached the sunlit uplands of avoiding its annual flirtation with the drop zone. There’s plenty still worth talking about. The summer is still young and the beer gardens are filling nicely. And, with next season still seven whole weeks away, there’s plenty of time to reacquaint ourselves with all of this.
If we want to.