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Saudi Money in Football: How Much Do Football Fans Care About Ethical Ownership?

‘In today’s era of hyper-capitalism within football, we will never again see the likes of Jack Walker bankrolling Blackburn to the league title. To truly break into the top clubs, it takes billions of pounds.‘

I was sat on a train up to Edinburgh when the text came through from my friend. It simply consisted of three crying laughing emojis. It took me a couple of seconds to process quite what was going on before I realised it was obvious. A quick check on the BBC sport website and it had been confirmed. 

“Saudi Arabian backed consortium pulls out of bid to buy Newcastle United.”

After months of speculation on whether a takeover bid led by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Reuben brothers and Amanda Staveley would be allowed to proceed, the plug had been pulled. PIF claimed they ‘regretted’ the situation, but after being left in limbo by the Premier League for so long,they could no longer proceed with a deal. 

Aside from my friend laughing at me, nobody had won in this situation. Newcastle fans desperate for investment after years of neglect and asset stripping were facing more years of Ashley ownership. Richard Masters and the Premier League had failed to show any leadership on the issue and simply waited until it had gone away, while disgraced pundit Richard Keys got a prediction wrong again. 

Ashley later attempted to blame the league and even cited Masters personally. Whether this was the truth or an attempt to put the league under pressure remains to be seen. 

There has been controversy surrounding the takeover ever since it became common knowledge. Newspapers were screaming blue murder, claiming the takeover was an obvious attempt at sports washing. If the Saudis were allowed to participate in arguably the most visible entertainment brand in the world, it would give their regime bags of cultural legitimacy and soft power. 

The situation only became murkier over time. The widow of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who was murdered in Istanbul by agents of the regime, begged the Premier League to not allow the deal to go through. Amnesty International also wrote to Masters claiming that any deal could only be allowed to proceed after a serious examination of their human rights record. 

Newcastle fans claimed that the media were being hypocritical. Football ceased to be the people’s game a long time ago. A local businessman, with a long-held affection for a particular club, taking over and winning the league is no longer possible. In today’s era of hyper-capitalism within football, we will never again see the likes of Jack Walker bankrolling Blackburn to the league title. To truly break into the top clubs, it takes billions of pounds. Manchester City have been owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family since 2008; another nation who have received criticism due to their unlawful detention of peaceful protests and attitudes towards the LGBT+ community. However, the culture of whataboutery doesn’t lead to any constructive debates. 

Some may say that it is only a game but for the people of Newcastle, football offers an outlet. The North East has one of the highest rates of deprivation in the UK. For many, life is hard and genuinely revolves around the club. A win on a Saturday can set the mood for the whole week. (This was demonstrated excellently in the Netflix documentary Sunderland til I die.) The 96.7% of fans who approved the takeover (according to a poll conducted by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust) don’t care about geopolitics. Many would take Satan himself if it meant seeing their team win the Champions League. 

Who can blame them? Years of underinvestment has allowed unemployment and child poverty rates in the area to soar. A successful football team would finally give thousands something to shout about. The UK government has sold over £5.3bn in arms to the Saudis since the start of the Yemeni crisis. Any say by Westminster over the deal would be hypocritical and go against the grain of years of UK foreign policy.  

The Premier League showed a shocking lack of leadership of the takeover. The WTO ruling which claimed that Saudi Arabia was pirating Premier League matches owned by Qatar, proved an effective smokescreen. They simply allowed the process to drag out overtime until the buying parties were forced to walk away. This was an opportunity to make a stand against money from questionable sources infiltrating the game, but they failed to make any sort of point at all. 

We certainly haven’t heard the last of this. Newcastle claim to be ‘exploring all available options.’ Ashley is determined to sell, Newcastle fans are determined for him to go and the Premier League want the profitable status quo to remain.

What does it mean for the thousands of people like me: passionate about football but also passionate about human rights and liberal democracy? I often criticized Mike Ashley’s business practices such as his zero-hour contracts and refusing to shut his shops at the start of the Covid pandemic. However, success on the football pitch would have led to many (probably myself included) to turn a blind eye. After reading more into the issues surrounding the Saudi regime, I think it is more important than ever, regardless of what team you support, to show greater awareness surrounding the ownership of the club. You have to see past the PR stunts and the social media feeds and scrutinise their true intentions.

A collective effort to bring human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia (or the UAE, Qatar, China or any other illiberal nation who could get involved in football) into the public conscience can only be a good thing. International exposure runs two ways and no government wants to be caught acting tyrannically. Greater discourse around such matters can hopefully lead to gradually modernisation and reform. 

Football has lost its innocence and it is only going to get bigger and richer. For those who truly love the game, we have to be prepared to deal with this in a responsible way. 

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