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Should you support Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United?

Steven Gerrard in the Newcastle dugout? Kylian Mbappe wearing the famous black and white jersey? St. James’ Park bows to His Excellency Mohammed bin Salman? The possibilities are endless after the Saudi PIF took over the Magpies, but they may not all be positive.

The acquisition makes Newcastle’s owners some of the richest in world football history and has kept most fans in check what to make of the move. The Premier League has also come under fire for allowing the move, particularly from experts and journalists who see the move as the final straw in revealing the real ugly self of football.


PIF stands for Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Saudi Arabia. It is chaired by Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and a man with a very dubious human rights record, which includes the murder of dissenting journalists, restricting women’s rights and bombing Yemen for no particular reason.

The Premier League has claimed that Newcastle was taken over by PIF, not the Saudi state, which is a ridiculous justification given that a simple search on Google shows that PIF is the nation’s fund. Saudi Arabia and PIF are just the same for all purposes.


The PIF’s takeover of Newcastle is not the first time a Middle Eastern state entity with a questionable human rights record has bought out a football club. Manchester City is owned by City Football Group, which is owned by the state of the United Arab Emirates, while PSG is owned by the state of Qatar. The reasons for all three acquisitions go back to the concept of sportswashing.

Sportswashing is the attempt to build soft power and undermine the state’s atrocities against its people in the public consciousness by associating them with sport and its contributions to the game. It’s a powerful tool as soft power can go a long way in reforming a country’s image – just look at the United States of America. The Middle Eastern states may not be the founders of sportswashing, but they were certainly the most explicit and aggressive practitioners.

PIF came to the party late, but with a bigger wallet and team than the UAE or Qatar. Newcastle, despite their relative decline this century, is bigger than Manchester City or PSG at the time of their takeovers and they have more power to sway mass perception.


There were many defenders of the takeover, not least from the north east of England. It has been justified by the old forces of English football as a simple contempt for “new money” which is a huge oversimplification. Every fan of the sport, no matter how non-partisan, wants football to be more competitive and the problem with money coming in isn’t that it’s new but where it comes from.

Newcastle fans have also said the opposition to the takeover stems from an innate hatred for the club and that Manchester City or Chelsea were not seen in the same light. This is rather wrong, as lingerie critics have long questioned not only ownership, but also Manchester City’s modus operandi when it comes to their finances.

However, Chelsea is a different case. They do not belong to the state, but to an oligarch. Objectively this is not a good thing, but in a relative context it is very different from state property. Roman Abramovich has a lot of power in the Russian state, but he is not an official representative.

In general, defenders of the takeover have claimed that it is a case of racism from critics, that only Middle Eastern owners are being questioned while America or Britain, arguably the worst human rights record, is not . Mixing individual or corporate property with state property is unjustified. The former has its own problems within the sport and what its limits and role should be in football, but nowhere is it as serious an issue as that of state-owned sportswear.

There is simply no equivalence among the owners. If the UK government were to invest in a team in their former colonies to change the perception of what they do, or if America were to invest in sport in Afghanistan, it would be western sportswear, which the owners do not like Glazers or FSG.

The line to be drawn here is not arbitrary – one cannot expect all football club owners to be free from all sin, and it is beyond the jurisdiction of football associations and leagues to question the morality of the individual but the extremely explicit nature of the state represent The atrocities committed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia deserve to be called upon and to take a stand.

In addition, in recent seasons, the Premier League has tried, at least in theory, to become a more socially responsible organization. The BLM and Rainbow Laces campaigns are two examples of how they have at least helped spark a conversation about broader social issues in sport. It’s hard not to think of them as empty gestures when it enables people like MBS to become an integral part of the sport.

Stopping the Newcastle takeover, however, would have been hypocritical by the league if Manchester City holdings continued as they are. The problem revolves around a lack of regulation, planning and structure in football. The role of sport in the community is evolving and action must be taken to prevent it from becoming just a cog in the power games of politicians around the world.

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