Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) bid to acquire a British football club, Newcastle United, via the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, Public Investment Fund (PIF), raises numerous interesting questions and concerns. In recent weeks, scores of journalists have put forward various perspectives on this acquisition, in which the Saudis will own approximately 80 percent of the club after its owner Mike Ashley reaches an agreement with PIF.
The first question is, at this point, why is MbS trying to purchase a football club? There is a lot to unpack and consider. For one, he is, as some have suggested, looking for an affordable deal in this time of an economic downturn and the global coronavirus pandemic. MbS has explored the purchase of another club such as Manchester United, but has now found this opportunity to be more feasible and easier to push through. According to Dr. Andrew Hammond, “The sovereign wealth fund has done a bit of bargain hunting of late, buying stakes in European majors when their share price is at a low.”[i]
MbS also seeks stronger Saudi-British economic ties in the post-Brexit period as the United Kingdom struggles financially, while simultaneously bolstering the already well-established weapons trade relationship.[ii] More specifically, this seems to be an attempt to soften the Kingdom’s image and to change many negative western perceptions surrounding Saudi Arabia by building a different narrative that puts a more positive spin on the Kingdom’s reputation.
Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have employed “sports branding” over the years.
Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have employed “sports branding” over the years. The lesson learned is that such an accomplishment will “brand” or position Saudi Arabia in a different light while, at the same time, imitating and competing with the likes of the UAE and Qatar in terms of prestige, appealing to an eager youthful segment of Saudi society.
At a different level, this impending deal speaks to a Newcastle United fan base that is deeply disappointed in the current owner’s meager accolades as patron of the club. These fans want to reestablish some of the glory of the past in terms of football success and a regional desire for an economic uplift. Ashley, the current owner, is seen as someone whose leadership has led Newcastle United to mediocrity and not truly committed to the sporting success of the club. Many Newcastle United fans believe that a new and wealthy owner such as MbS would invest huge amounts in, putting together a more successful team that could compete with, and, at some point, seriously challenge, other current giants such as Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal to name a few.
Of course, that would require professional planning and expertise and a long-term commitment by the new ownership. Fans in the region also hope for Saudi investments into the decrepit infrastructure and job opportunities that would improve living standards. Newcastle United fans scoff at the criticisms being leveled against MbS’ moral character and misdeeds by pointing out that there are numerous Premier League (PL) club owners with questionable and dubious backgrounds.
As Tom Rogan, a Washington-based foreign policy commentator, pointed out, there are several PL football club owners whose sources of power are tied to authoritarian regimes. Examples include: Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich (a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin); Aston Villa’s owner Nassef Sawiris (the son of Onsi Sawiris, whose wealth was mainly derived from family access to the previous Egyptian President’s Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt dealings); and Southampton’s owner Gao Jisheng (a Chinese billionaire, who previously served in the People’s Liberation Army and as a Chinese Communist Party official).
The human rights community has tried to raise awareness by pointing to ethical, moral, and integrity issues regarding the nature/persona and past indiscretions of the “new” owner of such a club.
Furthermore, the human rights community has tried to raise awareness by pointing to ethical, moral, and integrity issues regarding the nature/persona and past indiscretions of the “new” owner of such a club. They point to MbS’ disastrous war in Yemen, the Ritz-Carlton affair, and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. These concerns have put Newcastle United’s fans on the defensive because they feel attacked and have had to take a moral stance. Although some seem to be conflicted, others simply do not care. Football is about tribalism and many hard-core fans will defend the club and the owners (with the promise of windfall investments), which in turn could be beneficial to the public image of Newcastle United as a club, but ultimately also to MbS as a leader.
Lastly, a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling rendered on June 16 will have major implications for this deal. The WTO confirms in its 113-page report that Riyadh bears responsibility for beoutQ, a “pirated rival network” to Doha-headquartered beIN Sports. The Saudis established this network in 2017 shortly after the GCC crisis broke out. Accused of streaming matches illegally, the Premier League, FIFA, La Liga, and UEFA have taken legal action against beoutQ, which resulted in the WTO becoming involved. Ultimately, the ruling found “that the country helped breach international piracy laws” and infringed intellectual property rights.
As Dr. Courtney Freer has explained, given the fact that the Saudi Crown Prince is the PIF’s chairman, his potential ownership of Newcastle United “provides a legal link between the creation of beoutQ and potential owners of Newcastle United, although the Saudis continue to deny this connection.” Evidently, the WTO ruling will complicate the prospects for this takeover.
While this is an effort to develop the sports sector as part of Vision 2030, as well as a means to boost nationalism rather than religion as a core element of Saudi identity, the Kingdom’s stability and the future of MbS depend on investment projects and the diversification of the economy, which are to create new jobs for six million unemployed young people. How can such a purchase be justified in a time of budget deficits and low oil prices?
As far as Dr. F. Gregory Gause III is concerned, “The argument will be that this is an investment for the long-term, to encourage diversification away from reliance on oil. . . . But if too many people see it as a luxury investment when they are being told that they have to endure austerity, it might lead to so much grumbling that the Crown Prince will have to listen to.”[iii]
Ultimately, “sports branding” is a proven tool to improve a country’s reputation.
Ultimately, “sports branding” is a proven tool to improve a country’s reputation. Yet this project is in its infancy and it will take Saudi Arabia many years to achieve a similar standing with the likes of the UAE and Qatar. To be sure, these two smaller GCC members were subject to complaints by human rights organizations regarding the treatment of migrant workers in their countries at the time of their take overs of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain.
However, the case of Saudi Arabia is fraught with significantly more baggage. Although there has always been some amount of scrutiny after the announcement of a club by a foreign investor, the case of Newcastle United is truly different. Prior to their respective take-overs, the UAE and Qatar already had established positive reputations as tourist destinations with top-end national airline carriers. There is no denying that Saudi Arabia will face far graver challenges than any other GCC state when it comes to overcoming some of its serious reputational problems in western countries which have worsened since MbS began his ascendancy to power.
[i] Interview with Dr. Andrew Hammond on May 7, 2020 (Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and author of ‘The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia’.)
[ii] Phone Interview with Dr. James Dorsey on May 5, 2020 (Senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore)
[iii] Interview with Dr. F. Gregory Gause III on May 5, 2020 (Professor and Head of the Department of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A & M University, College Station)