LONDON – A former shipbuilding city in northeast England may seem an unlikely place for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation.
And yet, last week, hundreds of Newcastle residents gathered outside the city’s football stadium to pay tribute to the power behind the Saudi throne – the man widely known as MBS.
Some tied tea towels over their heads, others waved Saudi flags and a few even wore masks from the crown prince himself – a world leader accused of a series of human rights abuses and ordering the assassination of a prominent journalist.
From a sporting point of view, these supporters had good reason to rejoice. Saudi Arabia’s $ 400 billion sovereign wealth fund had just bought its long-suffering football team Newcastle United, making them overnight the richest club in the world. But the deal has drawn criticism that Saudi Arabia is using the team, founded in 1892, as a “sports wash” vehicle.
In other words, Saudi Arabia is accused of trying to whitewash its reputation so that it is no longer synonymous with a brutal absolute monarchy that jails activists, conducts public beheadings, and oppresses women and society. LGBTQ community, and instead became known as the smiley face. of international football success.
“This gives the Saudi authorities the opportunity to put their name, brand image and positive messages about their country across the world,” said Felix Jakens, UK campaign manager for human rights group Amnesty International.
It’s a familiar playbook. Manchester City are now owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi and Paris Saint Germain by the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, to name a few. The football elite is increasingly dominated by distant regimes with bottomless pockets.
But the Saudi-Newcastle takeover sparked international outrage on another level.
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“It is a country that is committing some of the worst systematic human rights violations against its own people – and the situation is only getting worse, not better,” Jakens said.
Saudi Arabia’s media ministry did not respond to a request for comment on its human rights record and allegations of sports washing.
The face of the $ 400 million deal is British businesswoman Amanda Staveley of PCP Capital Partners. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign public investment fund owns 80% of the team.
The consortium says the fund is independent from the Saudi government. The Premier League claims to have received “legally binding assurances” that this is the case. Many experts disagree, pointing out that the fund’s board is made up of ministers from the Saudi government and its chairman is MBS himself.
The crown prince has tried to reshuffle the kingdom’s image from being seen as an exporter of Islamic radicalism to a modern power rather driven by technology, tourism, entertainment and sport. The accompanying social reforms mean that women are now allowed to drive and that cinemas have opened for the first time in 35 years.
The motivation of MBS is pure survival. He knows Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth will not last forever, said David Roberts, associate professor at King’s College London.
“There is an existential need for colossal change – playing around the edges won’t cut it,” Roberts said. “This was fire under MBS. He wants to reconceptualize every element of the state.
This promised transformation has captivated international commentators. But that story turned sour in 2018 when Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who wrote for the Washington Post, was assassinated by a Saudi squad. The CIA says MBS most likely approved of the murder, which he denies.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war has also sparked international revulsion. Until recently, United Nations investigators were examining allegations that the kingdom, along with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels it is fighting, may have committed war crimes.
Human rights abuses and possible war crimes don’t seem to bother many Newcastle fans, with more than 97% of them supporting the takeover, according to a poll carried out by club supporters last year.
Football is treated as a quasi-religion in Newcastle, with fans suffering decades of disappointment, with their last major trophy taking place in 1955.
But United’s large, dedicated fan base also meant the club were seen as a sleeping giant, ripe for investment. The acquisition will reverberate far beyond the city limits, giving Riyadh a place in the world’s most lucrative football league, with an average global audience of around 3 million per game.
Many fans are just happy to see the back of their former owner, deeply unpopular UK retail mogul Mike Ashley. But they also greeted their new investors with few qualms.
The crowd outside the stadium chanted last week: “We are Saudis, we do what we want”, while supporters on social media changed their avatars for the face of MBS.
The fans “are not indifferent,” said a contributor to True Faith, a podcast for Newcastle United fans. “They don’t say, ‘I don’t care about human rights’, but in the context of that it’s not that important to an everyday football fan and they have no control there- above.”
Some have turned hostile to the media, asking why Newcastle appears to be under more scrutiny than the US or UK governments that have sold arms to Saudi Arabia.
They point the finger at the growing list of sports teams funded by foreign petrobillions: if they can do it, why can’t we?
“We are under attack,” said another contributor to the True Faith podcast. “We don’t care. We are all absolutely buzzing.