“WE’VE got our football club back”, gleeful Newcastle fans sang, greeting the news that their club had been sold by its British billionaire owner. But it is hard to see in what sense it is once again “theirs” now that the ownership has passed to one of the most blood-soaked, repressive, human-rights-abusing regimes on the planet.
We like to maintain a sentimental myth that our football clubs are vehicles for community identity. The reality is that, to turn the English Premiership into the best football league in the world, we have allowed our local clubs to be bought by anyone with truckloads of money.
There are rules that insist that a club’s owners and directors have to be “fit and proper” persons. It is hard to see how such a description could fit Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and chairman of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund that has just bought Newcastle United FC. The rule excludes anyone who has committed an act abroad that would be considered a criminal offence in the UK.
The Saudi ruler has not actually been convicted of the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered with a bone-saw while he was still alive in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul (Comment, 26 October 2018). A gruesome recording of the crime exists because the Embassy was bugged by the Turkish secret police. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights laid the blame unequivocally on the Saudi state. And the CIA concluded that the murder squad acted on the personal orders of Mohammed bin Salman.
Crown Price bin Salman has also presided over a six-year bombing campaign in Yemen which has produced what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in which a child dies every ten minutes (News, 21 February 2020). In Saudi Arabia itself, dissidents and women’s rights activists are jailed. The penalty for homosexuality is public whipping or chemical castration. And witchcraft and sorcery are punishable by death.
Perhaps the attraction of Newcastle for the Saudis is that at the Gallowgate end of the ground public executions took place until a few decades before the club was founded in 1892. Fifteen witches were once hanged in a single day there.
What female and gay Newcastle fans make of this is unclear, but a supporters’ trust survey last year found that almost 97 per cent of respondents were happy to turn a blind eye to these ethical concerns.
It is hard to level blame at the fans, however, when — in full knowledge of the dubious character of the Saudi regime — our own Government continues to sell it arms, worth £6.7 billion last year. Indeed, attempts to prevent the takeover of Newcastle were reportedly unblocked by the Prime Minister after he received text messages from Mohammed bin Salman threatening that Anglo-Saudi relations would be damaged if the deal was not approved.
The purchase of Newcastle is a nakedly political attempt by Saudi Arabia to draw attention away from its human-rights abuses by associating itself with Britain’s most popular game. Amnesty International have called it “sports washing”. The fact that money is more important than morals is a sad emblem of the state of our nation.