EDI Collective

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Collective in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester

The human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and other countries are well documented, but rarely well presented. Rather than another sanctimonious journalist abstractly mentioning human rights issues in other countries, sometimes it is better to hear tangible accounts of events which can often seem distant. Nobody could portray Lina al-Hathloul’s perspective on human rights in Saudi Arabia better than herself which is why reading or listening to her interviews yourselfwill be much more beneficial than the brief summary that follows. 

“I’ve never seen her, but as my parents explain it they have seen her shaking and having red marks on her skin she’s been electrocuted, flogged and waterboarded.” “Toujan has not called for over two months and we have no idea where she is now.”

Lina describes the imprisonment and alleged tortureof her sister, Toujan al-Hathloul, who is imprisoned for her public support of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia – specifically for advocating the right for women to drive in Saudi Arabia. Despite it being over two years since legislation legalising women being able to drive in Saudi Arabia, Toujan has been imprisoned for campaigning for the passing of this law and her support of other women’s rights movements within the kingdom.

From Lina’s perspective it appears that Saudi Arabia’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United was an opportunity to raise the profile of human rights issues in Saudi Arabia and more personally, to highlight her sister’s imprisonment and mistreatment. Saudi Arabia’s withdrawal from Newcastle United appears to be a small victory in the fight for women’s rights and equality in Saudi Arabia as it is denying the state that has imprisoned her sister and many other activists the ability to sports wash these atrocities. 

From the perspective of some Newcastle fans, Saudi Arabia not only offered a reprieve from the toxic ownership of much maligned Mike Ashley. It also offered a way out of the economic doom and gloom which many feel has consumed the region, a region which has been ritually ignored by various British governments. With investment coming from Saudi Arabia who pledged that upwards of 250 million pounds would be invested in the north-east if their takeover was successful. This makes the ethics of the takeover potentially a little less black and white– particularly to Newcastle fans who live in the area. 

It also raises some interesting questions about the ethical role fans play in the running of their club. And by extension, how responsible players and managers are for the teams they play and how responsible they are for the teams they choose to play for.

It is also important to remember that many Newcastle fans have directed their frustration with the Newcastle takeover situation at the Premier League. Specifically, at the time it has taken for the Premier League to come to the non-decision that led to Saudi Arabia withdrawing from the deal. This criticism of the Premier League appears to be justified since the time taken to not come to a decision regarding a potential owner has been against their own policy and unfair on Newcastle fans and on Newcastle United on a sporting level. However, whether this volume of criticism from many Newcastle fans regarding the delay would have been levelled at the Premier League if they had approved the sale to Saudi Arabia and their human rights record remains highly debatable.

Given the potential benefits to the north-east that would have accompanied a Saudi Arabian owned Newcastle United, it can be understood why some Newcastle fans wouldn’t be totally against the takeover. Especially considering how, Newcastle, like many non-London cities, has been left to stagnate by the government. Many may feel that foreign investment is the only viable option. However, perhaps the solution is not looking for handouts from a regime looking to conceal their shocking human rights recordand further their own political aims through these handouts. Maybe in search of a more inclusive economy we should start voting for politicians who promise to invest in these areas and hold them accountable if they don’t keep these promises. Maybe we should start voting for politicians who display a long-term commitment to the needs of historically working-class areas, not just superficially in the months leading up to an election

The events surrounding the failed takeover of Newcastle United have been as frustrating for Newcastle fans as they have been problematic for the Premier League as an organisation. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the Premier League’s problem has very little to do with human rights abuses and a lot do to with piracy and copyright. Taking a step back, it becomes clear that the Premier League has historically shown no hesitation in approving the sale of Premier League clubs to owners with questionable human rights records. Most notably Roman Abramovich who became Chelsea owner in 2003 and the UAE’s acquisition of Manchester City in 2008.

More specifically to the Newcastle takeover, the Premier League has shown that the principle reason for not allowing the takeover is not based on taking a stand against human rights issues. But instead, based on the piracy claims surrounding the Saudi Arabian government and the Qatari based organisation beIn Sports. Otherwise the Premier League wouldn’t have taken months to come to a non-decision. Furthermore, the investment fund attempting to purchase Newcastle United pulled out of a potential deal after Saudi Arabia banned beIN Sports across the kingdom. Saudi Arabia denies backing the massive piracy operation that is beoutQ, which offers illegal streams showing Premier League games across Saudi Arabia and the rest of the gulf. This is despite beIN Sports owning the license to show Premier League games in the region. beoutQ is widely regarded as funded and organised by the Saudi Arabian state, a notion the vast scale of the operation would support. At a generous minimum Saudi Arabia has taken very few meaningful steps to combat beoutQ’s and its illegal practices.

These events surrounding the takeover Saudi Arabia’s attempted takeover have been a problem for the Premier League as an organisation as it has exposed the incompetence and lack of ethics within the organisation. 

Saudi Arabia sees Newcastle as an opportunity to push their own economic, political or religious agendas – as they have done in other countries. The Saudi having backed war in Yemen and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi (who had openly criticised the Saudi regime) in Turkey being prime examples of this. However, the exact nature of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy remains up for debate and there are many different ways it can be interpreted.

For example, Newcastle United represent an opportunity to politically manoeuvreagainst some of their geographical neighbours like Qatar and the UAE. Neighbours who have already inserted themselves into football in the pursuit of accomplishing their own individual economic and political aims.  One of these neighbours, the UAE (which effectively owns Manchester City Football Club), have already used football to broker increased diplomatic relations with the UK as Manchester City’s Emirati owners presence at football matches in the UK frequently coincides with meetings involving members of the UK government. Perhaps Saudi Arabia sees acquiring Newcastle United as a way to facilitate a beneficial political relationship with the UK as it appears their Gulf rivals have. Maybe Saudi Arabia views the cultural bastion that is football as a way to assimilate itself with ‘European’ cultural ideas. This has often been touted as a key argument for supporting gulf states like Saudi Arabia in football. This raises some interesting questions like is there a correct way for countries to attempt to diversify themselves?

If there is a correct way, many individuals and organisations would argue that it is not the way petrostates like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have taken to assimilate themselves to European culture, maintaining that the steps these countries have taken are a facade. Lina al-Hathloul interprets the actions the Saudi government has taken regarding the legalisation of women driving in the kingdom as superficial attempts at appeasing foreign countries. The imprisonment and alleged torture of Lina’s sister for campaigning for the passing of legislation to legalising women being able to drive supports her claim. In addition, the idea of ‘sports-washing’supports such criticism of these regimes. A term specifically coined to describe how countries can use spectacular sporting events to conceal human rights atrocities

Saudi Arabia could see Newcastle United as an opportunity to create internal division and unrest within the UK by garnering the support of disenfranchised populations residing in areas of the UK, like the north-east, which have been ritually ignored and deprived of much needed investment for decades. This may seem a far-fetched idea at first, but it wouldn’t be the first time a foreign power has been accused of meddling in UK politics in recent times.

Overall, it seems the takeover of a football club the size of Newcastle United provides a state like Saudi Arabia many opportunities to implement their foreign policy, but any attempt at deciphering the nature of this policy requires varying degrees of speculation

Drawing on the perspectives discussed here, it becomes clear that ‘football’ is not just about football. Attempts to reduce or limit the discourse surrounding football to just what is played on the pitch are unhelpful, dangerous and largely ignorant. As with many things, football and its practices are a reflection of society and often a reflection of the grimmest parts of societies with its corruption, abhorrent transfer fees and frequent disregard for human rights. Saudi Arabia’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United shows how politically close to home many of these things are. Yet these events within football are also an opportunity for fans, players, owner, politicians and other parties to try and change football and wider society. Saudi Arabia’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United has highlighted where these opportunities are in football and will hopefully lead to fans, players and managers taking these opportunities in the future.

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Written by Fred Clare

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