When talk of a potential takeover of Newcastle United began in early 2020, fans were ecstatic; after 13 years of the drab ownership of Mike Ashley, supporters of the club were desperate for regime change.
The Magpies, as they are nicknamed, have the ninth-highest trophy total of clubs in England, yet they have languished in mediocrity for the most part of the 21st Century, with Geordies desperate for some much-needed investment in the squad which Ashley was unwilling or unable to provide.
When a deal to buy Newcastle for £300 million was then agreed upon with a group consisting of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), PCP Capital Partners and Reuben Brothers, a new era seemed on the horizon, pending the Premier League’s approval of the ownership change.
Yet, over sixth months later, Mike Ashley remains owner of Newcastle United Football Club. On July 30th 2020, this torturous and protracted period of limbo appeared to come to an end, with the news that the Saudi-backed group had withdrawn from a £300 million takeover deal.
The consortium had grown frustrated with the seemingly indefinite indecision from the Premier League, who have not yet released a statement on their decision-making but are believed to have harboured deep concerns throughout the process, centring on giving control of one of the country’s most historic football clubs to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, including issues of human rights abuses, ownership structure, and Intellectual Property (IP) piracy. Newcastle’s fans reacted with consternation, feeling that the promised dreams of limitless riches and ensuing on-field success had been snatched away from them by the Premier League.
The controversy surrounding this football club’s failed takeover raises several interesting issues that reach far beyond questions of which new striker Newcastle can afford to sign. It highlights the practice of ‘sportswashing’ and how Gulf States have attempted to use sports as a tool for public relations and soft power projection, while also being indicative of the complicated relations created by the Saudis by involving the state in non-state activities abroad.
‘Sportswashing’ is a term that has seen increasing usage since 2018, deriving from terms such as ‘whitewashing’ or ‘greenwashing’, and is generally used to refer to state actors using sport as a political tool to ‘clean’ their image and distract global audiences from their misdemeanours. Of course, while this term is only a few years old, the history of regimes using sport as a political tool for favourable opinion dates back through history, perhaps most notably seen in the example of the Nazi’s hosting of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
In recent years, ‘sportswashing’ has been used in many cases in reference to the hosting of large showpiece sporting events, such as the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Saudi Arabia has been a prominent recipient of this label; for example, the day after journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared, before his death was later confirmed, it was announced that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would be participating in a lucrative tennis match there, amid criticism from Amnesty International. Hosting such events can be seen as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s strategy of projecting a positive image of a modern kingdom, in contrast to worldwide criticism of Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses, the murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents, or its involvement in the war in Yemen.
However, ‘sportswashing’ is more than simply hosting large, one-off events. Big tournaments or competitions, no matter how successful or enjoyable, are unlikely to completely clean the image of a regime in the worldwide popular consciousness; to argue so would be to view world audiences as fairly gullible, and to overstate the power of sport. To truly work towards washing a reputation, more pervasive, subtle, and ongoing forms of involvement in the cultural sphere are required; for example, sponsorship and ownership of football clubs.
Ownership of football clubs, particularly in the Premier League, has changed remarkably in the space of a few decades. With television revenues reaching ever-higher totals since the turn of the millennium, and the coverage of the league becoming a lucrative export, England’s clubs have become increasingly attractive to international super-rich investors. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has been one of the most prominent states in this regard, with its involvement in English football since the 2008 purchase of Manchester City Football Club by Sheikh Mansour, Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE and member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, for £210 million, in addition to the purchase of Arsenal’s new stadium naming rights and shirt sponsorship in 2004 by the UAE’s state-owned airline company Emirates. The UAE’s second-largest airline, Etihad Airways, followed suit with a reported £400 million acquisition of Manchester City’s stadium naming rights and shirt sponsorship. As such, the fortunes of two of England’s largest clubs has been inextricably intertwined with Abu Dhabi, with financial outlay rewarded with a taken-for-granted place in the Premier League’s lexicon of stadia and a normalisation of the UAE within British culture. For Manchester City in particular, Sheikh Mansour’s ownership has brought tremendous success, memories of which will be forever tethered to their owners and the Etihad Stadium.
Another of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, Qatar, has also been a prominent force in European football in recent years, with its ruler Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani owning Paris Saint-Germain through the state-owned shareholding organisation Qatar Sports Investments, and with the country’s football association successfully winning in its controversial bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
As such, it is clear to see why Saudi Arabia would want to continue using sports to project a positive image of itself, particularly as its Gulf neighbours have been so prominent in doing so over the last decade or two, and as criticism of the kingdom has intensified.
Another aspect of the soft power projection afforded by football club ownership can be examined in relation to its geography. Newcastle United is the only professional football club in Newcastle and so is a huge part of the social and cultural fabric of the city. Located in the north-east of England, the club is a source of immense passion and pride for residents of a region of the country which includes some of the most economically and socially deprived neighbourhoods in the United Kingdom. A similar example can be seen with Chinese companies’ purchase of several of the West Midlands’ biggest football clubs, namely Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, and West Bromwich Albion. A Financial Times article on the subject quoted a fan of Wolves, as Wolverhampton Wanderers are known, as explicitly recognising this, stating that “It’s about soft power […] it’s about coming in and investing in a neglected area that’s been overlooked for years. People in the West Midlands like the Chinese. They’re seen as a moneyed, successful people. They are doing a lot more for us than the British government.”
Consequently, it can be seen that projecting soft power through football club ownership is potentially especially effective in winning hearts and minds if it takes place in an area that feels ‘left behind’ by their own government. In the case of Newcastle United’s takeover, the deal was reportedly tied to wider investment in the city, and so represents a concerted effort by the state to weave itself into the social fabric of the area, and to then propagate a more positive image of itself into Western public perception; the narrative shifts away from Khashoggi and Yemen to the image of a benevolent Saudi bringing prosperity to a deprived and overlooked area of the UK.
There is, of course, also an economic angle to this investment by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. Simplistically, taking over a mediocre football club and transforming them into a formidable football success will increase the value of the club and can lead to selling it for profit. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar highlighted investment in sport as part of their plans to move away from economic dependence on oil in their ‘Vision 2030’ and ‘2030 National Vision’ respectively. However, spending on playing staff does not always equal success, and owning a football club is a significant task that in no way guarantees profit. As such, the soft power element of demonstrating that these actors are good to do business with and allies on the world stage is a more important aim then pure profit.
It is clear that ‘sportswashing’ and soft power projection through football is not only a deliberate strategy of several Gulf states, but a process that is already deeply entrenched and more than a decade old. Saudi Arabia lags behind both the UAE and Qatar in this regard, and this is assumedly a major factor in its Public Investment Fund’s desire to take control of Newcastle United. Indeed, many of the criticisms of Saudi Arabia and the moralistic arguments against such a state effectively controlling a Premier League club could be levied on Qatar, who have garnered plenty of scrutiny over the treatment of migrant workers in the construction of its World Cup infrastructure and are also involved in the disastrous war in Yemen.
Furthermore, Qatar’s existing relationships with football was cited by many angry Newcastle fans who took to Twitter to declare the Premier League ‘corrupt’, pointing towards Qatari media outlet beIN Sports’ accusations of Intellectual Property (IP) piracy of their Premier League coverage by a Saudi website, facilitated by representatives of the kingdom. Lamentably, it may well be breaches of piracy laws which proved to be the biggest obstacle to the Saudi takeover as Newcastle, as while the League’s Director’s and Owner’s Test prohibits potential owners from having a criminal conviction, there is no moral framework that can explicitly ban the involvement of investors answerable to states under the accusation of human rights abuses. Nevertheless, pressure from Amnesty International and the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi added to the clamour for the Premier League to block the deal, resulting in the prolonged indecision which led to the consortium walking away.
Overall, what this episode demonstrates is the importance of sport, particularly football and the Premier League, as a vehicle of soft power projection for states in need of washing their image clean for greater worldwide support and influence and also to attract investment in a post-oil world. While the takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund failed, the relationships between the Premier League and the UAE and Qatar are already established and pervasive. It is difficult to say how much a state can effectively clean its image using sport, however that does not dissuade the Gulf States from spending exorbitant sums of money to try and do just that.
In particular, football club ownership is powerful as it exploits the emotional connection and unconditional loyalty of fans to their club, and ingrains influence into the social and cultural fabric of both the city and country, especially if it is focused on areas dissatisfied with their socio-economic situation and their own central government. While the Saudi takeover bid does not represent a new phenomenon, the heightened awareness of the Kingdom’s repressive actions following the murder of Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen, together with the fact that the involvement of the PIF would effectively make Newcastle’s board answerable to the Crown Prince, make this a significantly acute case of attempted ‘sportswashing’ and raises questions for sporting authorities and their own countries over who should be allowed to invest in important cultural institutions, and under what kind of conditionalities.