• Ashhar Hassan

Sportwashing Your Sins Away!

Prophecies have been made, bets have been placed, and fans are gearing up for Newcastle to take on England's top flight. But when seen from a larger perspective, is it fair for a team on the verge of relegation to suddenly take on the best of the best simply because of Saudi Arabian oil money and political ties?


Early October, Newcastle United FC was collectively acquired by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, Amanda Steevely’s PCP Capital Partners, and Rueben Brothers with a price tag of £305 million.


What is the Saudi Arabian PIF?

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) is a sovereign wealth fund originally established to invest in strategic assets and buy equity in listed firms. The PIF is overseen by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman. As a result, the Saudi Arabian government has immense influence over the PIF’s assets, which now includes a club located in the Northeastern part of the United Kingdom.

This acquisition made Newcastle United the world's wealthiest club overnight, surpassing Sheikh Mansour's Manchester City, which is valued approximately 14 times less than the Magpies. Newcastle United has the entire world in its hands with this kind of money.


However, this is a textbook example of sportswashing. It's a publicity gimmick intended to boost Saudi Arabia's international image. While this isn't new, it does raise serious questions about the integrity of English football and the morality of UEFA on the whole.



What is Sportswashing?

The etymological meaning of the term may give you a satisfactory answer but it's only a half-truth. Today, sportwashing is an act of infiltrating society and buying an affirmative public impression. It is a subtle form of power-play weaving its way along a convoluted course involving fans, teams, and everyone behind the scenes, in an environment that becomes part of a complicit system trying to clean up the image of an oppressor state.


For nearly a century, countries with tarnished reputations, autocratic regimes, and countless war crimes have practised Sportswashing. In 1934, Italy hosted the FIFA World Cup for the second time. The Olympic Games, held in Berlin in 1936, were used by Fascists and Nazis to legitimise their regimes and promote totalitarian ideals.


Tarnished reputations and appalling human rights records are recurring characteristics of these countries. The Russia-hosted 2018 FIFA World Cup, for example, acted as a cover for various human rights and geopolitical issues like rising clampdowns on nonviolent dissenters and rallies, and labourers dying during stadium construction. Sporting events in Russia repeatedly veil President Vladimir Putin's acts of political persecution and assassinations of his political opponents.


What is currently taking place in European football is extremely similar:


Pawns in a Larger Game

The Abu Dhabi Royal Family owns Manchester City FC, among various other clubs around the world. Since Sheikh Mansour took over the club in 2008, ManCity has won multiple league crowns and FA Cups. Albeit, the $1.3 billion it cost to establish such a side also bought them a gateway to the center of Britain and more limelight.


Paris-Saint Germain was in a remarkably similar situation as Newcastle United FC in 2008: mid-table, with no financial assistance and the threat of relegation hanging over their heads. But just as the situation began worsening, Qatar’s Emir Al Thani bought PSG for about 70% of its value through Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) in 2011, and later became its sole owner in 2012, making it yet another wealthy football club being used to gain legitimacy and control over the French political elite.


Human Rights Violations

Saudi Arabia has sparse freedom of expression; its press freedom index is appalling and has a reputation for the institutional stifling of dissent. Moreover, it has atrocious women’s rights, homophobic legislation, religious extremism Khashoggiral disregard for international humanitarian law. Torture, stoning, and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees, as well as slave labour, are more widespread than one may believe. Saudi Arabia has even become a deathbed for around 6,500 migrant workers working to construct stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


Muhammed Bin Salman, the chairman of the PIF, is accused of being the mastermind behind Saudi Arabia's 2015 bombing campaign in Yemen which massacred hundreds of thousands of children and women. MBS is also the prime suspect for the assassination of a Turkish journalist Jamal Kashoggi.


Tarnished Integrity of World Football

It is highly questionable why the Premier League, FIFA, or UEFA has no regulations preventing such outright sportswashing. It allows entire nations to get entwined with popular and dominant teams like Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain despite multiple and obvious human rights violations. The “owner’s and director’s test” for example, only checks the financial viability and criminal history of potential owners instead of also actively addressing issues of morality concerning ethics of acquisition and integrity of the sport.

Despite fan complaints via banners and social media, teams such as Bayern Munich still tolerate the injustices done by nations where the full squad practises during their mid-season breaks. Also, it has become surprisingly easy and common for football administrators to turn a blind eye to monarchs and their totalitarian practices. Football, or sports on a whole, should be used as a platform to promote international cooperation and peace instead of acting as a rat race to establish supremacy.


Conclusion

The Saudi Arabian PIF’s acquisition of NUFC is yet another case of autocratic governments using sporting clubs as a public relations tool to dazzle people with affluence and false promises, and “nation-brand.” Questions have been raised on the Premier League since Roman’s takeover of Chelsea, but they have been simply ignored, creating a loophole for strong and affluent government-run organisations to flashily remake their images through a perfect alliance with a football heavyweight in doldrum. It also enables the leveraging of the home country’s democratic institutions as pressure points on regulators to allow them to get away with anything -even murder.


~ Ashhar Hassan


Sources - TRT World, Oh My Goal!, DW Kick-Off!, LastWeekTonight, TifoFootball, Feminism In India, The Mancunion, Crossfire KM, Reuters