Thursday, December 9

Saudi Arabia’s capture of Newcastle leaves human rights in the mist on the Tyne | Newcastle united

TThe great game of football has always been an expression of the country and the era in which it is played, which is why the takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi investment fund radiates the broadest reflections on the state of England.

On the same day that the prime minister hailed the collapse of the European Super League breakup as a triumph of our moral sporting values, the Premier League was preparing to approve a fund financed by the super-rich and murderous Saudi state as a fit and proprietor. suitable for one of our great clubs.

The Premier League’s reasons for approving the deal, after so much delay and contention, are seriously questionable and appear to stem, at least in part, from a desire to end the grueling and painful legal challenge presented by Newcastle owner Mike Ashley. , for the right to sell to the Saudis. The key breakthrough now is that the Premier League has accepted a pledge that the Saudi Arabian state will not have control of the club, even though the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which will buy and control the club, is sovereign. from Saudi Arabia. wealth fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prodigious piracy of the Saudi state of sports television broadcasts in the Gulf by Qatari-owned BeIN, the former servile neighbor whose rise to the Saudis they strongly resented, becomes irrelevant if it can be said that the owner of Newcastle, PIF, It is not the state.

Even reciting all of this should seem outlandish in the context of English football – “the people’s game” – and particularly in a club so closely associated with its local identity and the regional character of its audience. But to be honest, it has been a long time to be surprised or even bewildered by the takeover of the great and lovable sports institution Geordie by a notorious and fearsome regime from a country 4,000 miles away.

It would be nice to be able to say that this is unimaginable, that after the heinous murder by the Saudis of their own citizen, journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, they were allowed to land, of all targets, in the great and beloved Newcastle. United as a vehicle to launder their reputation.

Newcastle fans protesting in Downing Street in July
Newcastle fans protesting in Downing Street in July. Photography: Mark Thomas / Shutterstock

But the truth of our game and of our England is shocking in reverse: this is highly imaginable and is just one more small leg on a journey that football has been taking for decades. Even the fans, the Toon army, the “nation of Geordie”, are fine with the takeover, euphoric actually; Supporter confidence has actively campaigned for her. They have patiently explained that they are at peace with all the arguments against Saudi property, responding that this is how the game has gone, and there is a counterargument that surpasses all: the club and the fight, after Brexit, battered by the austerity. The city of Newcastle needs the money from the Saudis.

And they are correct in saying that this is where the game is headed. The great English clubs, passionately supported and sentimentally glorified as homes of local ownership, were converted in the wealthy age of soccer into assets so that local owners could cash in and make huge profits for themselves, selling to international investors. Clubs, and sport itself, have also increasingly become invaluable vehicles for international image washing by countries seeking a global projection of soft power. Amnesty International has clearly titled this phenomenon as sports laundering.

Through all the fog on the Tyne, the focus must be kept on how dire the human rights records of Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman are. Khashoggi, a distinguished journalist who wrote critically about the Bin Salman crackdown and the horrendous war in Yemen, was killed and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in his report that the state of Saudi Arabia was responsible.

The CIA concluded in November 2018, according to authorized reports from the United States, that Bin Salman ordered the assassination; he has denied it. The crown prince himself is chairman of PIF, the fund approved to take over Newcastle United. Ashley was so determined to sell the club to the Saudis that he was suing the Premier League for the right to do so, backed by a Toon army desperate to get Ashley’s skinny Sports Direct culture out of St James’ Park.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth vehicle that provides the money to buy Newcastle. Photograph: Charles Platiau / Reuters

Still, more surprising than the deal now being negotiated is that proper and proper person testing of Premier League owners and directors once threatened to block it.

The reason for doing so was not that it is essentially insane for countries to own and fund individual city clubs that compete in soccer leagues in other countries. That leap came in 2008 when Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi ruling family bought Manchester City, then financed them to become Premier League series champions, and in 2011 when a Qatari sovereign wealth fund bought Paris St-Germain. , now enriched to an agglomeration of superstars.

In the case of the Saudis, the state was not going to be barred from owning a Premier League club because of the Khashoggi assassination, or the Yemen campaign in which Abu Dhabi was a partner, because such atrocities do not fit the bill. the precise terms of a test originally designed to prevent petty criminals from taking over lower-division clubs. Instead, it was the piracy of television coverage that seemed to have been decisive, if it was accepted that the Saudi state itself, through its PIF, was indeed the owner of the club.

Observers of the resolution of this Newcastle impasse, that the Saudi state is not the owner of the PIF, can see the centrality of the PIF in the entire national strategy of the state, established in Vision 2030, to diversify its economy beyond dependence on oil, as all Gulf states must strive to do. The vision is committed to expanding sports, entertainment and cultural life in Saudi Arabia and “transforming the Public Investment Fund into the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world.”

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Sports washing, or building the image of a country through association with the incomparable wonder and excitement of sport, is not a development of recent years; it has a longer history even than Hitler’s Germany as the site of the 1936 Olympics. Locally, the ownership or sponsorship of professional football has always been a vehicle for individuals or businesses to take pride in.

Newcastle’s first acquisition for the Premier League era saw buying and real estate development mogul Sir John Hall piling up regional rhetoric to stir up the affinities of the ‘Geordie nation’, before selling his stake to Ashley in 2007 for 55 million pounds. Ashley has used the big club as a billboard for her Sports Direct retail operation, a daunting culture shock with fans’ adherence to a romantic and inspiring vision of the game. Now, finally, Ashley can realize her own ambition, get her pay back, and English negotiator Amanda Staveley achieves hers, finally closing the deal with the Saudis and the property she develops from the Reuben brothers.

We may still be surprised, but it seems unlikely that after his triumph in firing the Super League, Boris Johnson would raise any objections to the first major development in English football since then. At the same Conservative Party conference this week, Johnson’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss praised the Gulf monarchies, but not the 27 democracies of the European Union, as among “our friends and allies” with whom we should be “forging closer ties.” This is where the national game and the nation are today.

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