The eruption of protest in the north-east at the collapse of the Saudi Arabian bid to buy Newcastle United has come as a shock to those for whom the prospect of Saudi ownership provoked revulsion. As it turned out, the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test did not bar the Saudis owing to the principal reason for that international revulsion, the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
After that murder, the distinguished reporter on Middle East affairs Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent that however appalling that atrocity was, it was “by no means the worst act carried out by Saudi Arabia since 2015”. He did not have in mind the one issue that did ultimately become a deal‑breaker at Premier League HQ: the pirating of football TV rights by the Saudi platform BeoutQ from the Qatari company beIN.
Cockburn pointed to the “horrendous results” of the war being pursued in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its principal coalition ally the UAE, of which Abu Dhabi is the dominant emirate, and to a World Peace Foundation report that said: “Warnings of the risk of mass starvation echo ever more shrilly.” Civilian areas, food supplies and the country’s main port of Hodeida were targeted by air strikes, and a report to the UN had found 8.4m Yemeni people did not have enough to eat.
Cockburn said the “savagery and stupidity” of the Khashoggi murder, if the Saudi authorities did order it, was not surprising “because violent overreaction to minor threats is a traditional feature of dictatorial rule”. The UN office of the high commissioner for human rights published its report last June concluding that the state of Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s gruesome killing, saying it was “overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials”.
It is heartbreaking to read Khashoggi’s celebrated September 2017 column in the Washington Post, headlined “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable”. His tone was anguished for his country, more sorrow than anger, constructive in his plea for the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to halt the growing arrests, persecution and intimidation of critics, and fulfil his “Vision 2030” promises of tolerance. According to the Post and other reports in the US, the CIA concluded in November 2018 that the crown prince personally ordered the murder. He has always denied it. Bin Salman is chairman of the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth, state-building vehicle that was providing the money to buy Newcastle.
So when it became clear that the deal-broker Amanda Staveley really did have the PIF behind her renewed proposal to buy out Mike Ashley, many observers assumed supporters might revolt against the prospect of Saudi ownership for the flagship club of the “Geordie nation”. Instead, the opposite has happened. The overwhelming reaction in Newcastle has been to protest against the Premier League taking so long to decide on the admissibility of the takeover that the PIF finally withdrew on 30 July.
A change.org petition to Boris Johnson has at the time of writing been signed by almost 100,000 people, lamenting the collapse of the deal, calling for a government investigation into the Premier League process, and praising Bin Salman for “supporting the UK with the outbreak of Covid-19 along with reforming the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia policies on human rights”. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust, which has 14,000 members, made a statement focusing on the regeneration promised by the PIF and property magnates the Reuben brothers, saying: “The collapse of the purchase of Newcastle United has potentially robbed the North East of a huge opportunity.”
Fifteen MPs across parties and the north-east have written to the Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters, expressing various forms of protest. Pat Ritchie, the chief executive of Newcastle city council, has also written to Masters calling for an explanation, and asking whether she can find a “compromise” which may revive the takeover. Johnson responded to the way this wind was blowing by calling on the Premier League to make a statement, adding to the sense that blocking a Saudi takeover of one of our great, heritage football clubs is an offence to good sense and decency.
To such a united front of popular support for the takeover, however surprising to those with a passing interest, it is more instructive to understand than condemn. The supporters’ trust, like all such democratically constituted fans’ trusts, was founded with the ideal that football clubs should be owned not by an investor seeking financial or other gain, but by the supporters for whom the club is passion and belonging. But their idealism has been strained, by the reality that major clubs are beyond the resources available for community ownership, and by 13 years of Ashley’s mostly cheap and cheerless regime. People can also make their peace with Saudi ownership because the UK itself is at peace and in alliance with the regime, and only last month resumed arms sales to it after an official review concluded there were only “isolated incidents” of airstrikes on Yemen that breached humanitarian law.
Supporters point to the Abu Dhabi ownership and fortunes fuelling Manchester City’s transformation and success, and the Qataris free to do the same at Paris Saint-Germain, and see no distinguishing barrier to Saudi Arabia. And they look at the investment promised during the coronavirus crisis for a region that has suffered long-term industrial decline and is projected to suffer the country’s deepest economic hit from Brexit, and feel that moralising outsiders should not deprive them of it.
It is a “real world” argument for grim times. In a way, it is mirrored by the reality of why the deal collapsed: not due to moral outrage over an infamous murder, nor humanitarian atrocities, but drawing the line at pirating of TV rights. As for why the Saudis wanted it, the support, protests and petition make the case already. As the regime has seen with their Abu Dhabi allies, buying a Premier League football club, being generous owners, and paying good players to work their wonders, is the best soft power that money can buy.