Why are Newcastle's new owners controversial? 'Sportswashing' and Saudi Arabia

Newcastle United play their first game under new ownership on Sunday as a new era begins for the club, which fans are expecting to be an awful lot more successful than the last one.

The Saudia Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) now owns 80 per cent of the club, with David and Simon Reuben (RB Sports and Media) owning 10 per cent and Amanda Staveley (PCP Capital Partners) taking the final 10 per cent.

Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Governor of PIF, is the new non-executive chairman and he said of the deal: ‘We are extremely proud to become the new owners of Newcastle United, one of the most famous clubs in English football.

‘We thank the Newcastle fans for their tremendously loyal support over the years and we are excited to work together with them.’

The PIF is a sovereign wealth fund thought to be worth $430bn (£315bn), making their purchase of Newcastle for £300m small change for them.

A sovereign wealth fund is a way to use the huge profits Saudi Arabia makes from fossil fuel sales, spending the money on projects around the world to spread the risk of investments, but also to try and improve the reputation of the country, which is where ‘sportswashing’ comes in.

The PIF’s chairman is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown price of Saudi Arabia, described by the BBC as the ‘de facto ruler’ of the country.

Among a number of controversies, US intelligence concluded that Bin Salman approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The murder of Khashoggi attracted a lot of attention on Saudi Arabia’s abuses of human rights, with Amnesty International listing 10 ways in which the country violates human rights.

These were listed in 2020 as: Torture is used as a punishment, Executions are on the increase, No free speech, No protests, Women are widely discriminated against, Torture in police custody is common, You can be detained and arrested with no good reason, Religious discrimination is rife, Migrant workers have been deported en masse, Human rights organisations banned.

Sportswashing has been used in an attempt to improve the reputation of the country, looking to paint a better picture of Saudi Arabia than that which human rights organisations would.

Amanda Staveley on sportswashing by the PIF

Asked by The Times if the purchase of Newcastle United is sportswashing, Staveley said: ‘Absolutely not. If that was the intention we would have bought a major franchise in the US; not a football club currently sitting in the relegation zone in the Premier League. This is about business investment and doing something special with a fantastic football club with the best fans in the world.’

The Guardian reported in March this year that Saudi Arabia had already spent ‘at least $1.5bn’ on sportswashing, with huge amounts spent on hosting boxing, golf, F1, professional wrestling and more.

Lucy Rae of Grant Liberty – the human rights organisation that conducted a report into sportswashing – said: ‘Saudi Arabia is trying to use the good reputation of the world’s best loved sports stars to obscure a human rights record of brutality, torture and murder.

‘The world’s leading sports stars might not have asked to be part of a cynical marketing plan to distract the world from the brutality – but that’s what is happening.’

The Athletic have also reported on the dire situation for LGBT+ people in Saudi Arabia, stating: ‘This is Saudi Arabia, where the adherence to strict interpretations of Sharia law renders it illegal to be LGBT+ and punishable by arrest, lashings, imprisonment, or even death.’

An anonymous Saudi lesbian woman told The Athletic she was sent to a mental institute: ‘I was interrogated about my sexuality, my religion, and a lot of nonsense irrelevant to my mental wellbeing.

‘They asked whether I was only pretending to like women because I might have had sex with a man outside of marriage, which is an offence. They were saying that I used lesbianism to try and hide it.

‘They treated me like I was ill because I did not conform to their vision.’

On an international scale, Saudi Arabia has also launched catastrophic airstrikes on Yemen, heavily involved in a war there that has killed over 100,000 people.

The attention will be on the pitch on Sunday as Newcastle host Tottenham at St James’ Park and Amnesty International have moved to remind everyone watching of what is going on in the Kingdom run by the new ownership on Tyneside.

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s CEO said: ‘Whatever the result on Sunday, we wish Newcastle fans and their team well, but we remain deeply concerned about how our football clubs are being used for sportswashing.

‘Football clubs being purchased for the purpose of trying to distract from serious human rights violations isn’t confined to Newcastle, and sportswashing isn’t confined to football – but the Saudi takeover has obviously brought the issue of human rights and football governance into sharp relief.

‘Despite assurances about a supposed separation from the Saudi state, ownership of St James’ Park is now very much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government.’

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