Saudi Arabia’s imminent Premier League landing through the takeover of Newcastle has been met with collective gasps from football’s chattering classes, but expecting fans to rise up against the deal is downright delusional.
The Saudis are set to take a reported 80 percent stake in the acquisition of the Tyneside club, in a deal spearheaded by British financier-turned-Middle East power broker Amanda Staveley.
Current Magpies owner Mike Ashley – a man with the dubious distinction of being as reviled as almost any other owner in the game – will part with the club for the knock-down price of £300 million (US$370 million), with Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Al-Rumayyan reportedly being installed as chairman.
Al-Rumayyan is governor of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), the gargantuan sovereign wealth stash with more than $320 billion in assets, and which is ultimately presided over by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a vehicle for his grandiose vision to wean the country off its oil-income dependency.
But with the Newcastle deal now at the consideration stage with the Premier League, English football’s metropolitan media elites are far from happy with the entry of the Saudis as major players.
Setting the tone in The Guardian, Barney Ronay lamented that the House of Saud would be replacing Ashley’s House of Karrimor – a reference to the cut-price sports gear flogged at the retail billionaire’s Sports Direct stores.
Echoing that sentiment was Daily Mail hack Oliver Holt, who said Ashley’s departure would leave a toxic legacy in Saudi hands.
An article from The Independent’s Miguel Delaney on Tuesday included the mandatory quote from Amnesty International, calling on Newcastle’s staff and fans to “familiarize themselves with the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about it.”
Delaney has continued his campaign on Twitter, imploring the Geordie faithful to protest against their incoming Saudi overlords.
A great idea would be for Newcastle fans to hold up a giant banner of Jamal Khashoggi at every single game if this takeover with PIF actually goes through.
The common theme is of condemnation over the deal but forlorn resignation that it will nonetheless go through. Most observers would agree that the Premier League is unlikely to flinch at the Saudi human rights rap sheet, from public beheadings to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But expecting Newcastle fans themselves to directly rise up against the takeover is as deluded as it is diversionary.
Some supporters may sit more uncomfortably in their St James’ Park seats at the prospect of their new Saudi owners, and fanzine The Mag has eloquently expressed the conflicted emotions many will feel. But the majority will simply be relieved that Ashley has gone; this is, after all, a man who stands accused of treating the club’s famous black and white kit as a mere ‘barcode’ to push his retail empire.
In an unpopularity contest, Ashley’s supposed sullying of a proud club makes him the clear winner, even when compared to the Saudis.
Critics of the House of Saud’s Premier League arrival will howl that that is exactly the point, that the prospect of hundreds of millions of pounds being poured into Newcastle to develop the team and surrounding area as a show of Saudi benevolence is simply ‘sportswashing’ at its finest.
The cultural goodwill the Saudis are hoping to acquire for their outlay is beyond dispute. But while that may perturb some fans, others will merely engage in a casual round of ‘whataboutery’. The Saudis already have their fingers in more pies than are sold on an average Premier League matchday, including “a strategic partnership” with Manchester United, while Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad last year won control of fellow Premier League club Sheffield United.
Elsewhere, the list of Middle Eastern sporting conquests continues: the Saudis’ bitter regional rivals Qatar own Paris Saint-Germain, while Emirati royal Sheikh Mansour counts Manchester City as among his playthings.
The Saudis are supposedly the worst of the lot, their takeover of Newcastle purportedly plunging football in England to a new moral low, bringing yet more blood-soaked, oil-drenched cash into game.
But in reality, football’s moral crisis began long ago, from the fleecing of fans through inflated ticket prices and merchandise, to the steady stream of corruption stories about those supposedly running the game for its greater good.
None of this is to say that football should operate in a moral vacuum, nor are its fans bereft of a conscience. But expecting them to be up in arms over a takeover by a state to which the UK government has sold billions of pounds of arms of a very different kind is pure naivety.
Imploring Newcastle fans to draw a line in the desert sand and help stop the Saudi takeover is misguided, and anyone calling for that to happen is pointlessly preaching into an echo chamber, most likely to soothe their own liberal sensibilities.
The reality is that the Saudis will join the sundry assortment of Premier League club owners, which already consists of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
The media should brace for that, and not expect fans to be the moral flagbearers in a sport that left many of their considerations behind long ago.
By Liam Tyler