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The sands of Tyne-side

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

How bizarre are last week’s pictures of Newcastle fans celebrating outside St James’s Park wearing keffiyehs and holding aloft Saudi flags? Are they bizarre, even, or these days are Middle Eastern monarchies to top-flight football what wooden rattles and alcoholism used to be?

Reaction to the club’s sale to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has been fairly muted. That is to say, there have been numerous articles, editorials, and tweets written about the deal, but they nearly ask, “why is nobody denouncing this awful deal?” without going so far as to denounce it themselves. Any real criticism of the club’s transfer to an unaccountable, repressive autocracy will anyway have been drowned out by Newcastle fans’ own pre-emptive shouts of “Why are you picking on us when half the league is owned by foreign despots?”

What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that the £305 million deal is an exercise in “sportswashing” by a disreputable regime keen to draw attention from its less sightly activities.

The Saudis certainly want to improve their image. The chairman of Saudi PIF and de facto head of state, Mohammed bin Salman, has tried hard to implement reforms popular with the West, like giving women the right to drive, but remains gripped in a bloody war in Yemen and was accused by the CIA of murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi on foreign soil. Swathes of public relations firms in Washington and London on his payroll and working to revamp the Saudis’ warmongering, misogynist, journalist-dismembering image with one more amenable to the rest of the world.

None of this withstanding, I can’t be the only one who detects a hint of racism in the accusations of sportswashing. The term itself – which only seems to be levied against foreigners – is most often used to describe Middle Eastern investment in football. The Brits in particular harbour a resentment towards the oil-rich Gulf states, many of which are former British colonies, especially when they use their new-found wealth to buy up historic English football clubs.

There’s also some snobbery to it. It plays on the caricature of the ill-informed football fan so ignorant of current affairs that his acquiesce of evil can be bought for bread and circuses. We know full well that Gulf money pours into British financial firms, high-end London property – The Shard is 95 percent owned by Qatar – and an array of communications and technical services every day, but we reserve our disapproval for football supporters.

All that aside, it’s little wonder Newcastle fans are so delighted at their new owners. Flattered, even. Saudi Arabia is the giant of an extremely wealthy peninsula; it’s rival Qatar cowers in the shadow it casts over the Persian Gulf. But while Qatar used its sovereign wealth fund to buy Paris Saint Germain and sign Lionel Messi and Gianluigi Donnarumma, Mohammed bin Salman – who holidays on his 440-foot superyacht – has opted for second-from-the-bottom-of-the-league Newcastle. Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, makes infrequent visits to Le Parc des Princes. I’m looking forward to seeing bin Salman on the terraces of St James’s Park, perhaps taking selfies with Sean Longstaff and Callum Wilson in the dressing room before joining Steve Bruce for a post-match Toby Carvery.

Amusing as it might seem, Newcastle’s new owners should also be pleased. Despite its current lamentable position, the club has a prestigious history and a large and loyal fanbase, which counts for a lot. United fans never tire of reposting pictures of Manchester City’s vast, state-of-the-art stadium filled with just a sprinkling of middle-aged Mancunians in light blue. These are the things money can’t buy. And for everything else, there’s petrodollars.

If the deal is a Saudi PR move, though, it’s a risky one. So far, it has led to more discussion of the war in Yemen and murder of Khashoggi, not less. Just as few Londoners knew about the Roman Abramovich’s shady business dealings before he bought Chelsea, many Geordies will now be learning about Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen for the first time. And MBS only needs to see how former chairman Mike Ashley was treated to imagine the chants about his regime that might be broadcast around the world every Sunday from disaffected fans on the terraces.

If MBS wants to avoid this ignominious end, he needs to lavish money onto his new club. The solution to Newcastle’s dismal league standing may be found in the deep pockets of the Crown Prince. Who knows? It might even produce a trophy. It’s safe to say that any bit of silverware will be enough to keep Newcastle fans flying the Saudi flag. Well, they’re not called the Magpies for nothing.

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