Rethinking Europe

Sportswashing: Saudi Arabia’s Dark “Soccer Diplomacy”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rolls the dice with bid for Newcastle United.

Takeaways


  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has rolled the dice with a $374 million bid to acquire storied British soccer club Newcastle United.
  • MBS’s emphasis on soccer is to develop sports in his country to position nationalism rather than religion as a core element of Saudi identity.
  • MBS is betting that the Premier League finds itself more pliable regarding his Newcastle acquisition as it faces a time of economic crisis.
  • MBS does not take kindly to criticism and rejection. After Canada criticised the kingdom’s human rights record in 2018 he withdrew its ambassador and froze all new trade and investment transactions.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has rolled the dice with a $374 million bid to acquire storied British soccer club Newcastle United.

MBS’s ulterior motives

The bid needs to be approved by England’s Premier League that nominally maintains a high bar for the qualification of aspiring club owners. If the body approves the bid, Prince Mohammed would have achieved a major goal.

He would have demonstrated that he has put behind a slew of events that severely tarnished his image. These include Saudi conduct of a five-year long war in Yemen, the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, systematic abuse of human rights and — more recently — the kingdom’s badly-timed oil price war with Russia.

A successful acquisition would send a message that the kingdom retains the kind of financial muscle that allows it to have its way. Acquiring a trophy like a storied English soccer club enables the Saudis to project themselves in a different light, garnering soft power.

Cash-strapped Saudis play rich

One thing is for sure. Any acquisition of Newcastle United is not done for financial gain, especially at a time of a pandemic and global economic collapse.

This is actually quite astonishing, considering that the planned acquisition comes as Saudi Arabia is reportedly seeking to raise $7 billion with an international bond sale to compensate for sharply reduced oil revenues.

Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, was reported to be talking to banks about a $10 billion loan to help finance its acquisition of a 70% stake in Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC). The deal would pour money into the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

Mimicking the Qataris

The Saudi acquisition of the Newcastle club would mimic the 2017 purchase of celebrated soccer star Neymar by Qatar-owned Paris St. Germain for $277 million.

That move at the time was similarly intended to demonstrate that the Gulf state was unaffected by the then several months-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott.

Another princely fiasco ahead?

By the same token, a decision by the Premier League to reject the acquisition of Newcastle would be perceived as yet another of Prince Mohammed’s self-inflicted public relations fiascos.

As it happens, those fiascos also include multiple failed attempts to position the kingdom as a powerhouse in international soccer governance.

A key driver of Prince Mohammed’s emphasis on soccer, symbolized by his presence at the kick-off of the 2018 World Cup in which Russia handily defeated Saudi Arabia, is his desire to project the kingdom’s power internationally.

In addition, it is a pillar of his effort to develop the entertainment and sports sectors in his country and boost his attempt to position nationalism rather than religion as a core element of Saudi identity.

Exploiting British weakness?

Prince Mohammed, ever shrewd in his moves, is betting that the Premier League finds itself more pliable regarding his Newcastle acquisition as it faces a time of economic crisis.

Moreover, with Britain needing to forge new trade relationships in the wake of its departure from the European Union, it may not want to slam the door on a wealthy investor and/or jeopardize British relations with the kingdom.

The man who loves to bite back – hard

That could prove to be a relatively safe bet. Especially considering that Premier League and British officials will have taken note that Prince Mohammed does not take kindly to criticism and rejection.

Saudi Arabia responded in 2018 to Canadian criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record by withdrawing its ambassador and freezing all new trade and investment transactions.

The financial game

Reports that Yasir al-Rumayyan, a close associate of Prince Mohammed and governor of the PIF, will become chairman of Newcastle raise the stakes for both Prince Mohammed and the Premier League.

The PIF will reportedly put up 80% of the funds needed for the acquisition through an investment vehicle created by a British financier even though a document filed with Companies House, Britain’s registrar of companies, made no mention of the fund.

The UK does have standards after all

Still, in considering MBS’s bid, the Premier League may find itself, albeit only momentarily, in an uncomfortable position.

The League has tightened its criteria to test potential club owners on their integrity and reputation. The criteria include ensuring that a potential owner has not committed an act in a foreign jurisdiction that would be a criminal offence in Britain, even if not illegal in their own country.

That could put the Premier League in the position of, at least by implication, passing judgement on whether Prince Mohammed was implicated in any of a number of events that may have violated British law.

The Man City precedent

Supporters of the acquisition argue that it bolsters Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a soccer-crazy country and reaffirms his push to break with the kingdom’s austere, inward-looking past. They reason further that it will bolster investment in Newcastle and surroundings at a time of impending economic hardship.

Supporters only need to look at Manchester where the United Arab Emirates’ acquisition of Manchester City more than a decade ago has benefitted not only the club but the city too.

Like fans in Manchester who have manifested little interest in the UAE’s record of human rights abuse, supporters of Newcastle are likely to welcome the financial injection and departure of the club’s unpopular current owner, Mike Ashley.

Welcome to the world of “sportswashing”

For that same reason, they are likely to ignore condemnation of the deal by human rights activists, including Amnesty International, as “sportswashing, plain and simple.”

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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