Newcastle’s Saudi Deal Delights Soccer Fans, Riles Activists
(Bloomberg) -- The Saudi Arabia-led takeover of Newcastle United F.C. is delighting long-suffering fans of the historic soccer club, but human rights activists not so much.
An acquisition by a group that includes the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, British financier Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reuben brothers is realizing a long-held dream of the supporter base: Rid the club of Mike Ashley.
“We can dare to hope again,” tweeted Alan Shearer, a former captain and coach of the team, minutes after the deal was announced on Thursday.
Ashley, the Frasers Group Plc chief executive and founder of the Sports Direct budget retail chain, has been lambasted by followers over a perceived lack of investment in players ever since he took control of the club in 2007. High-profile scuffles with fans include a 2011 dispute over the re-branding of the team’s 52,000-seat St. James Park stadium to Sports Direct Arena, a move that was later reversed.
“For the first time in 14 years, we’ll have a club that strives to improve for the long-term,” Greg Tomlinson, chair of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, said Thursday by phone, speaking hours before a deal was announced. “Newcastle United supporters are absolutely delighted that it will mean the end of Mike Ashley’s reign.
While fans are dreaming of the financial clout to lift Newcastle from 19th position in the Premier League this season, activists are urging intervention.
The move is a “clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record,” Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International U.K., said by email, urging Premier League executives to review their ownership-vetting procedures. Sportswashing refers to countries using involvement with sports teams or events to gloss over perceived abuses to improve their reputations.
“The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains dire - with government critics, women’s rights campaigners, Shia activists and human defenders still being harassed and jailed, often after blatantly unfair trials,” Deshmukh said. “The closed-door trial of Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged killers was widely perceived to be a part of a wider whitewash by the authorities.”
A U.S. intelligence report released in February concluded that Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, who was dismembered by Saudi agents in Turkey in 2018. Saudi officials and Prince Mohammed deny that.
The Saudi wealth fund’s chairman is Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. It’s governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is one of the prince’s top advisors, and all of its board members are high-level government officials. However, the Premier League said it has received “legally binding assurances” that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control the club.
A Newcastle United spokesman declined to comment, while a spokesman for the Saudi wealth fund didn’t immediately respond to a call.
The Newcastle United brand is unlikely to be damaged by the Saudi controversy, according to David Alexander, founder of Calacus, a London-based public relations consultancy that focuses on sports. “Fans care about what happens on the pitch first and foremost,” he said by email. “Do PSG fans protest about concerns over human rights in Qatar, or do the majority just want to see Lionel Messi line up with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe?”
Some sponsors may be concerned, but others are likely to focus on the increased exposure they’ll get if the team’s performance improves, Alexander said.
To be sure, some of the club’s supporters share Amnesty’s concerns. “As a lifelong Newcastle United supporter, I feel sick this morning,” Channel 4 News reporter Alex Thomson said on Twitter. “What the hell has ‘football’ become?”
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