Written by: Harry Colvin
This past October, English football club Newcastle United was purchased by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, emphasizing an ongoing debate about where the line is drawn between western morals and football success. The funding comes specifically from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, run by Yasir Al Rumayyan, who will become a non-executive chairman of Newcastle United. Allegations of sportswashing, disapproval from fans and fellow clubs, and eventually the resignation of the English Premier League Chairman have all taken place in the month following the sale of Newcastle United. But this discourse over the moral line of football club owners, particularly those from Middle Eastern authoritarian countries, doesn’t start in Newcastle. It begins in Manchester, an English city about 150 miles south.
In September of 2008, Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan acquired English football club Manchester City for a price believed to be £150m. This was an acquisition different from anything the football world had seen before because Sheikh Mansour was no typical football owner. Unlike most football club owners who have made their money through various capitalistic endeavors, Sheikh Mansour is a member of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family, a position that granted him massive political and financial power in one of the world’s richest countries. Upon the purchase, Manchester City instantly became one of the richest clubs in the world according to Forbes’ annual ranking, and their financial backing was supplied by the authoritarian royal government of the United Arab Emirates. They used this money to purchase the world’s best players and became a powerhouse in European club football.
Manchester City would not be the lone club owned by an authoritarian regime for long. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) was bought by Nasser Al-Khelaifi in 2011 through the Qatar Investment Authority, a Qatari sovereign wealth fund. In 2021, ten years after the purchase, the Parisian club ranked fourth on Forbes’ 2021 most valuable football club list. Like Manchester City, PSG has become one of the most powerful football clubs in Europe. Like the English club, PSG has achieved this through its purchasing power and ability to offer players more money than other clubs. They currently employ three of the top five highest-paid footballers in the world: Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe.
Now, it is Newcastle’s turn to create a European powerhouse through the use of a Middle Eastern sovereign fund. The deal went through in early October, with the face of the purchase being Amanda Staveley, a British businesswoman who is now the director of Newcastle and owns 10% of the club. She will be responsible for the running of the club.
The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund that is supplying money to Newcastle, has an estimated net worth of $430 billion. After Newcastle, the second-highest owner’s net worth is Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour, who sits on an estimated $22 billion. The funding behind Newcastle United is truly something never seen in football before. However, like UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s government has built a reputation for authoritarian rule that goes against the moral principles of western society.
Saudi Arabia has created a poor image of itself to Eurocentric moral standards through its domestic and international actions in the last few years. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was critical of his country’s government, was murdered after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Evidence points to it being a government-issued murder, with then-President Donald Trump calling the Saudi government’s explanation “the worst cover-up in history”. Saudi Arabia has jailed many female women’s rights activists, with the influential Loujain al-Hathloul telling stories of how she was tortured while in prison. Saudi Arabia has also been engaged in a devastating war with Yemen, punished same-sex relations, and extensively used the death penalty on its people.
All of these uses of government power and force have created the country’s poor reputation throughout Europe. Thus, many view the investment from the Middle Eastern government’s sovereign wealth fund into a Premier League football team as “sportswashing.” Sportswashing is a term used to describe corrupt or authoritarian regimes who use sport and sports events to whitewash their image internationally. Manchester City and Paris Saint-German have also been accused of sportswashing in recent years.
The reaction of the football community was not in favor of the Saudi Arabian takeover. After the news of the takeover was released, the remaining 19 clubs in the Premier League quickly had a meeting to discuss their vehement disapproval of the sale. A week later, 18 out of 20 Premier League clubs voted in favor of introducing a temporary amendment that bans new commercial opportunities involving pre-existing business relationships. This would prohibit, for example, Newcastle from signing with Saudi Arabia’s national airline as their official shirt sponsor.
The takeover has led to strong reactions from both Newcastle and opposition fans. In the matches immediately after the sale was completed and announced, Newcastle fans arrived at their away match in London with Saudi Arabian flags, with one fan outside the stadium saying that he wants Saudi Arabian money “even if it’s covered in blood.” In contrast, the fans of Crystal Palace, the home side that day, held up a banner with a cartoon image of a Saudi Sheikh on the left, holding a sword and approaching a magpie (the Newcastle mascot), while the Premier League’s chief executive stands on the right over a bag of bloody money, in front of an “Owners Test” that checks off the likes of “terrorism,” “beheadings,” “civil rights abuses,” and “murder.”
Some Newcastle fans are extremely upset with the sale of the club to the Saudi Public Investment Fund. “We’ve waited a long time to finally be rid of Mike Ashley,” says John-Paul Quinn, 30, a lifelong supporter from County Durham. “It should be a glorious day but I’ve dreaded this takeover since it was first mooted. The club is well shot of Ashley, but it’s now in the hands of some of the worst people possible.” A portion of the fanbase will be able to turn a blind eye and just focus on the football that Newcastle plays, but there will certainly be those who feel disconnected from the club because of the sale.
Recently, it was announced that the Premier League Chairman, Gary Hoffman, is set to resign from his position amid the controversy over the Saudi purchase. A week before this news broke, fellow Premier League chairmen had an unofficial vote of confidence that favored his departure from the position of head chairman.
Despite all the angst and uproar, the sale of Newcastle to the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund has gone through and will remain intact. This is disappointing not only for the community of football but for everyone who holds value in human rights. Sportswashing has proven to be a powerful tool for authoritarian regimes. It allows these countries to create an image for themselves that the vast majority of the world will eat up because it could be all they know about the country. Qatar, the country that supplies funds to PSG, will hold the World Cup in 2022.
Sportswashing is unlikely to be resolved in the near future because money talks. While authoritarian regimes such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE pour more money into the game, the people in positions of power will continue to benefit. With more extremely wealthy clubs in the Premier League, the overall fanbase of the league will grow as marketing and success on the pitch brings in new fans, but it takes money to recruit the best players and sign the most lucrative deals with sponsors. Newcastle will have strong aspirations to grow as a club, following the blueprints laid out by Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. However, it takes away the purity of what so many across the world love, the beautiful game of football.