Mixing Politics with Sports: Saudi Arabian Takeover of Premier League Side Newcastle Raises Questions Over the Motives Behind the Move

By Jonah Glenn

In all of professional soccer, there are only two state-owned clubs, Manchester City, owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and Paris Saint Germain, owned by Qatar. Both teams rank in the top four in money spent in the last decade, with Manchester City ranking number one, and have won a multitude of tournaments and leagues, PSG with 22 trophies since the takeover and Manchester City with 10 (more than its 114 year history before the Abu Dhabi takeover). In this time, both teams have risen to be two of the greatest teams in the world backed by owners with billions to spend. PSG owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi has a net worth of 6.5 billion pounds and Man City owner Sheikh Mansour has a net worth of 23.3 billion pounds. 

Neither of these net worths are even comparable to the soon to be owner of Newcastle United Magpies.

The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), which invests money in projects and businesses on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government, is headed by Mohammad bin Salman who has a net worth of over 320 billion euros. In comparison, the net worth of the owners of all other Premier League teams combined is approximately 75 billion euros. Salman is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and soon to be king, and his purchase of Newcastle has sparked questions on whether the prince should be permitted to buy the club. 

Numerous human rights activists and communities, like Amnesty International (which strives to prevent and end human rights violations), have begun to express their concerns about the take over. Felix Jakens, the head of priority campaigns at Amnesty International UK said,  “Saudi Arabia is attempting to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football as a PR tool to distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record.” He is referring to “sportswashing”, when a country attempts to use sports, or the introduction of a sports team, to hide and down play a poor human rights record. The Saudi government has been accused of many cases of harassment, torturing and treating activists poorly, and in 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (although the government has publicly denied it). Others, like media group BeIN Sports, have spoken out against the takeover as they claim that Saudi Arabia has been pirating Premier League broadcasts illegally. Furthermore, the Saudi’s have been profiting off the illegal sale of these games and it poses a vast threat to Premier League commercial revenues. 

Despite these concerns and urges, the United Kingdom government has said it will be unlikely to intervene, as it has and wants to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia. With regard to the Premier League, Richard Masters, the chief executive of the league replied to Amnesty International to say that the league is taking extra measures to ensure the takeover is done correctly.

Therefore, it is very unlikely that the takeover will be halted.

With that in mind, the PIF plans to complete the takeover of Newcastle United from current owner, Mike Ashley, in the coming weeks. Ashley has a current net worth of $2.9 billion but has consistently failed to invest or show ambition towards the club. During his thirteen year tenure, Newcastle United was relegated twice, fired a club legend coach, and recently became the first Premier League team to furlough all non-playing staff. These actions have caused a poor relationship between Ashley and Newcastle supporters and has led to the sale and takeover by the Saudi Arabian PIF. 

Another question that may arise over the incoming takeover is, why Newcastle? Why would the Saudi Arabian government buy a club that is currently in 13th place in the Premier League and last won the league in 1927? The answer is one of the main reasons Newcastle fans want a change, lack of investment. Because Ashley has only done the bare minimum when investing in players, he has presented PIF with plenty of opportunity to invest in big-time, impact players in the future. Like the Manchester City and PSG takeovers, Salman could transform the Magpies into a soccer powerhouse. 

However, due to Financial Fair Play laws the Magpies cannot spend endless money. The law states that a team can only lose 105 million euros over three seasons. Essentially, a team, over the course of 3 seasons, can have a maximum of a 105 million loss in total revenue which includes player sales, jersey sales, player purchasing. There are ways to get around these laws as infrastructure is not regulated so they can spend unlimited money on their stadium and training fields, gaining sponsorships that were previously unavailable which would also greatly increase their revenue, and investing in youth development all don’t apply to the fair play laws. 

Nonetheless, Newcastle fans generally remain unaffected by the abysmal human rights of the Saudis and are excited to what the ownership will bring. News of the takeover has “given the whole city, the whole region, a buzz even in these difficult times,” says Alex Hurst, chairman of the Newcastle Supporters Trust. While Newcastle rejoices over dreams of becoming like Paris Saint Germain or Manchester City, the entire soccer community must wonder if takeovers like this becomes common, will soccer be truly owned by governments across the world and will these league be seen as helping sports-wash human rights abuses.

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