In Focus

Newcastle’s Saudi takeover: what is ‘sportswashing’?

Amnesty calls for meeting with the Premier League over owners’ and directors’ test

Amnesty International CEO Sacha Deshmukh is seeking a meeting with the Premier League to discuss changes to its owners’ and directors’ test, following Newcastle United’s controversial takeover by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium. 

Last week it was confirmed that the £305m bid had been approved by the league and that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) would take an 80% controlling share in the Tyneside club. The completion of the deal has sparked widespread criticism due to the Middle Eastern country’s poor human rights record. 

Amnesty International described the takeover as an “extremely bitter blow for human rights defenders” and questions have been raised over the possibility of “sportswashing” by Saudi Arabia, The Guardian reported.

In a letter seen by the Press Association, Deshmukh has written to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and asked how the current owners’ and directors’ test has “nothing whatsoever” to say about human rights.  

“The way the Premier League waved this deal through raises a host of deeply troubling questions about sportswashing, about human rights and sport, and about the integrity of English football,” Deshmukh wrote. “Football is a global sport on a global stage – it urgently needs to update its ownership rules to prevent those implicated in serious human rights violations from buying into the passion and glamour of English football.” 

‘Boldest move yet’

Saudi Arabia’s association with sport has become an “integral, and contentious, part of its efforts to rebrand”, said The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov. But the takeover of Newcastle is the kingdom’s “boldest move yet, placing it firmly on the world’s sporting stage, and squarely in the crosshairs of its critics”.

When the Premier League confirmed the approval of the takeover it had “legally binding assurances” that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is listed as chair of the PIF, but the Premier League was satisfied that the state would have no dealings with the football club. 

Amnesty has offered to meet Masters with corporate lawyer David Chivers QC. Last year Chivers wrote a new human rights-compliant owners’ and directors’ test on the campaign group’s behalf and an updated test was sent to the Premier League last July. “We hope that Richard Masters will see that making the football’s ownership rules human rights-compliant can only be for the long-term good of the game,” Deshmukh said. 

‘Grim game of our times’

The Macmillan Dictionary defines sportwashing as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation”.

In the past few years Saudi Arabia has emerged “over and above” its Middle Eastern neighbours in trying to “paint a rosy picture of the country while prosecuting those for standing up to it”, Firstpost explained. And it is not a new concept. The 1934 Fifa World Cup in Italy and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were both tools to spread propaganda by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively.

The Gulf state has gone from hosting boxing bouts, horse racing and wrestling to now owning Newcastle and also preparing for a Formula 1 grand prix in Jeddah in December. This “sportswashing programme” all comes at a huge cost, said human rights organisation Grant Liberty. In a report published in March it estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5bn (£1.1bn) on high-profile international sporting events.

Sportswashing is the “grim game of our times”, The Irish Times said in 2018. That year the term “earned itself the attention of Oxford Dictionaries, which placed it as part of an expanding range of coinages where the suffix ‘washing’ is applied to suggest deceptive, insincere and opportunistic appropriation of some value or cause”.

Mohammed bin Salman on a visit to 10 Downing Street

Mohammed bin Salman on a visit to 10 Downing Street

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

‘Strange kind of deliverance’

The Premier League’s “unabashed worship of money” is no secret, said Oliver Holt in The Mail on Sunday. But it has seldom seemed more flagrant than last week, when English football rolled out the red carpet to let “a purveyor of pre-meditated murder, mass executions, state-sponsored misogyny and widespread oppression of LGBT rights” take over Newcastle United. 

Fans were jubilant when the PIF took an 80% stake in the club, replacing the “hated” previous owner, Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley. But it’s a “strange kind of deliverance” when your “liberator” is bin Salman: the man who personally sent a hit squad to murder the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Newcastle fans are understandably hoping that Saudi cash will bring an end to “their long trophy drought”, but they’ll have to reconcile themselves to the fact that their club was bought with “blood money”.

‘Lots of money in the bank’

Personally, I don’t blame “those jubilant Toon fans”, said Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. Newcastle are far from the only club with a dodgy owner. The Premier League applies its “fit and proper” test to the ownership of clubs, but all that means is: “lots of money in the bank”. Manchester City was owned first by Thaksin Shinawatra, a “dubious” Thai politician later convicted of corruption, and then by Sheikh Mansour, a “totalitarian bigwig from another desert satrapy”, Abu Dhabi.

The game is built on dirty money. Newcastle are “only following the well-trodden path of the UK Government and City advisers”, said the FT. Far from Khashoggi’s murder being a “turning point” in UK relations with Saudi Arabia, our exports (including arms) have actually gone up, to £6.7bn, in the past year. 

‘Project soft power’

Why are authoritarian regimes so keen on English football clubs, asked The Economist. There is a business case – but with so much foreign cash in the game, buying success is ever more difficult. The main draw, it seems, is that football allows them to “project soft power”. 

“Football has never been pure,” said Jonathan Wilson in The Guardian. But surely this is the time to draw a line in the sand. Forget all the hypocrisy and whataboutery: “there is only one question Newcastle fans and football more generally needs to ask: How do you feel about torture and murder?”

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