A Sportswashing Deal Will Air Saudi Arabia’s Dirty Laundry
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The new owners of Newcastle United are about to discover the Streisand Effect, the Internet-era phenomenon in which an attempt to prevent something from happening — or happening again — guarantees that it will. The result: a self-inflicted public-relations predicament.
The English soccer club, recently acquired by a group led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has urged fans not wear traditional Arabic clothing or head coverings at matches to avoid giving offense. This comes after some supporters showed up at the club’s St. James’ Park stadium last weekend wearing imitations of Arab headdress.
It is unclear who might have been offended. The club said in a statement that the new owners were not put out. And why should they be? Far from mocking the Saudis, the supporters appeared to be celebrating them as saviors. Most Geordies, as Newcastle natives are called, are delighted at the takeover. They’re counting on the deep Saudi pockets to propel their club, long confined to the lower reaches of the English Premier League, into the global soccer elite — just as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have been elevated by Emirati and Qatari owners, respectively. The Saudi Public Investment Fund has assets worth over $400 billion, and aims to top $1.1 trillion by 2025.
So it’s a pretty good bet the club’s admonition will go unheeded when Newcastle United supporters travel to London for their team’s Saturday match against Crystal Palace. Since the tribal nature of soccer fandom revels in rebellion against official injunction, no one should be surprised if even larger numbers of Geordies turn up with their tea-towels fashioned into the traditional Saudi gutrah.
Voila, the Streisand Effect — named for the famous singer’s attempt to suppress an image of her Malibu home only to increase attention to it.
But rather than its own supporters, the management of the club has more to worry about with rival fans. As in most sports, soccer has a hoary history of insult-trading — and even outright violence — among partisans in the stands, and Newcastle United’s new ownership has given opposing fans a great deal of new material. Well-practiced in the art, the Geordies will give as good as they get, but any Saudis attending the game — whether in the bleachers or in the owners’ box — are in for a rough ride.
If they are lucky, the gibes will mainly be about money. In Newcastle United’s first game under the new ownership, a home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, the visitors’ supporters jeered the Geordies as arrivistes by chanting, “Where were you when you were poor?” One imagines that the few Saudis in attendance found this line of heckling somewhat mystifying.
But it could get worse, much worse. As in the schoolyard, so in the stadiums, the taunts are designed to cause the intended target excruciating embarrassment. Even as you read this, some rival fans are surely composing crude new chants that connect Newcastle United to, say, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen or Saudi Arabia’s appalling human-rights record.
There are already social-media memes that harp on these themes; cruder versions play on the kingdom's harsh punishments for behavior that is legal under British law. It is only a matter of time before these memes are manifested in English stadiums, in the form of chants and banners. Picked up by television cameras and microphones, these will be transmitted to a global audience of billions — among the largest of any professional sport—and, of course, in Saudi Arabia.
Soccer authorities frown upon political sloganeering in the stands, but they will struggle to litigate against Saudi-bashing chants by supporters. It is one thing to penalize a club when its fans spout homophobic invective against a visiting team, but quite another when they point to the Saudi government’s attitude toward LGBTQ communities. Nor can authorities who approve of players taking the knee against racism then turn around and proscribe protests against other forms of discrimination.
For their part, rights activists will likely use every Newcastle United game to draw attention to the kingdom’s record. Last Sunday, a van drove around St. James’ Park with a giant poster bearing the message “Justice for Jamal Khashoggi.”
Newcastle United’s plea that the sovereign wealth fund should not be conflated with government policies is undermined by the fact that the PIF is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler. Routinely pilloried as a tyrant by the British press, he will undoubtedly be subjected to special revilement by rival fans.
It is widely assumed that the acquisition of Newcastle United is an attempt at “sportswashing,” to soften the image of the kingdom and its crown prince. That might happen with time, but not before loads of dirty Saudi laundry are aired before soccer’s global audience.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
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