9th October 2021
Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi (PIF) pose for photographs inside St James’ Park having found Newcastle on the map
The long suffering fans of Newcastle United have finally been freed from the dead hand of sports tycoon, Mike Ashley, whose lack of ambition has been like a slow suffocation, squeezing the breath out of a once vibrant, lively club. The glee with which the takeover by the Saudi led Public Investment Fund (PIF) consortium has been greeted is akin to the glory days of Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson, when the team rode high in the league and played eye catching football, the envy of many.
Expectations are that journeyman manager Steve Bruce will be sacked, an appropriate high flying replacement will be installed and magic will once again be in the air at St. James’ Park. Suited executives who previously struggled to find Newcastle on a map now talk of their love for the city, its unique character, the special bond with the fans. Even local legend, Alan Shearer, waxed lyrical about the fans now having their club back, though unless they are stakeholders in PIF, 80% owned by the Saudi dictatorship, that notion is a little fanciful.
The Premier League have had to engage in some fancy diplomatic footwork to approve the deal. Not least has been turning a blind eye to the scale of the Saudi stake in PIF, being satisfied with assurances that the Saudi regime will play no part in the running of the club. With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the Chair of PIF, other Saudi ministers being on the board and the Saudi regime the major stakeholder, the Premier League is either being naïve or disingenuous.
The fact that the Saudis have agreed to pull the plug on Middle Eastern pirate TV stations, which were illegally airing Premier League product may have been something of a sweetener too.
The Saudi deal is not the only dubious football purchase in recent years or the only example that money dictates the play on the international football stage. Roman Abramovich, may have been a knight in shining armour to many Chelsea fans, but less than a hero to many overworked and underpaid Russians.
The oil rich Arab dictatorships have been moving into football in a big way recently. The Abu Dhabi royal family takeover of Manchester City in 2008 set the trend. Qatar will host the first desert based World Cup in 2022, in a nation with no history or tradition in the game. To prove their bona fides the Qataris did proceed to buy Paris St. Germain, to show that they have the interest of the sport at heart!
The Saudi deal with Newcastle United is by no means the only questionable issue of ownership in the Premier League. However, it does outstrip the others in the open engagement of members of the ruling dictatorship being so closely involved and the extent of their collusion in other dubious practices with the British government.
It is estimated by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) that more than £20 billion worth of arms have been sold to the Saudis by Britain since the bombing campaign against Yemen, started in 2015, a conflict which has seen 150,000 lose their lives and which the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
Beheadings, 90 last year alone, and public floggings continue to be the order of the day in Saudi Arabia. The rights of women are severely restricted and political opposition silenced. Would a company 80% owned and controlled by Kim Jong Un, with a promise that the North Korean government would not directly interfere in the day to day running of the operation, have passed the Premier League’s fit and proper owner test? Unlikely, unless Kim were to spend more time cavorting with the British Royal Family and buying UK manufactured weaponry!
The only small positive to emerge from the sorry farrago is that even the BBC have had to acknowledge that the Saudis may not be squeaky clean on human rights, though the British government‘s role in propping up the dictatorship with billions in arms deals somehow never gets mentioned.
As a financial operation the Premier League is unequalled in world football. As an ethical proposition it is sinking ever deeper into a mire of its own making. The extent to which football as an industry is bound to the world of international finance capital continues to grow. The recently mooted European Super League failed to materialise this time but the idea in some way, shape or form will be back.
The Toon Army, with the long held hope of success in their grasp, will only lose their heads in the metaphorical sense. Those opposed to the Saudi regime are in danger of losing their lives for real for not complying with an Islamic dictatorship.
It is an irony that Premier League footballers are berated when they are not deemed to be proper role models for young people, or are criticised as being overpaid when others struggle to make ends meet. It may be that it is time to apply more rigorous standards across the Premier League as a whole. The fit and proper persons test for owners and directors has clearly failed in the case of PIF.
Amnesty International have stated recently of the Newcastle United deal, it risks making the Premier League, “a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the global footballing community.”
It is a stinging indictment that the once beautiful game which gave hope and pride to working class communities, is increasingly the plaything of the super-rich. The rules desperately need to change.