Newcastle United has sold its name and reputation to a brutal government run by a brutal ruler, the organisation founded by the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi warned on Thursday night, after the football club was taken over by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium.
While there was delight in Newcastle after the Premier League confirmed the £300m deal had gone through, with fans hopeful that the new owners would spark a revival in the club’s fortunes, multiple human rights groups condemned the takeover and said it would allow Saudi Arabia to “sportswash” its image on the global stage.
The criticism was led by Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), the group founded by Khashoggi before he was killed – and his body cut to pieces with a bone saw – after being lured to the Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018.
US intelligence agencies have since concluded that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, approved the murder. This has been denied by the Saudi government.
“Newcastle has sold its name and reputation to a brutal government with a brutal ruler,” Dawn’s executive director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said.
“They may as well put Bin Salman’s picture on the club’s emblem. It is now more apparent than ever that English football will sell itself to anyone, no matter how abhorrent their crimes, if they offer up enough money.
“I don’t think people really understand the corrupting influence that this deal will have. It normalises a dictator who literally goes around butchering journalists.”
Confirmation of the takeover, which was first mooted in the spring of 2020, means that the British billionaire Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, has ended his control of the club after 14 years in which he quickly became unpopular with fans.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) now owns 80% of Newcastle, with the remaining 20% split between RB Sports & Media, part of the Reuben Brothers empire owned by property developers Simon and David Reuben, and PCP Capital Partners, led by the British financier Amanda Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi.
David Reuben’s son, Jamie Reuben, and Staveley will sit on the Newcastle board. The nonexecutive chairman will be Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of the PIF.
The Premier League said it had allowed the deal to go through after accepting assurances from the PIF – the state’s sovereign wealth fund overseen by Bin Salman – that the Saudi state would not be involved in the day-to-day running of Newcastle.
However Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, said the Premier League had been mistaken.
“It’s wrong that the crown prince is now pretending that he is not involved in this proposed deal,” she said. “We all know he is using it to try to clean his image.”
That message was reinforced by Nabhan al-Hanshi, acting director of ALQST, a Saudi human rights group based in the UK, who described the PIF and the Saudi state as “inseparable”.
“Therefore the PIF is complicit in the grave human rights violations being committed by the country’s rulers, including the ongoing detention of peaceful activists, abhorrent executions, and war crimes in Yemen,” said Hanshi.
“This deal reflects the Saudi authorities’ PR strategy of investing in prestigious sporting ventures in a bid to clean up their image.”
Sunjeev Bery, the executive director of Freedom Forward, an organisation that works to end US alliances with non-democratic regimes, said that the PIF had also been directly implicated in the murder of Khashoggi.
“The Saudi public investment fund owned the planes used by Khashoggi’s assassins,” he told the Guardian. “The Saudi public investment fund is in charge of the destruction of tribal communities where Bin Salman wants to build his $500bn Neom city.
“So the public investment fund is the direct financial arm of the Saudi dictatorship’s brutality, and it is the source of the cash that finances the repressive system.
“There is no division between the PIF and the state. The Saudi ruler is in charge of the PIF, sits at the top of the PIF and uses the PIF directly to maintain power. The Saudi monarchy is using football to hide this horrifying record, and everyone should be utterly appalled.”
However the news was greeted with unrestrained joy from thousands of Newcastle fans who were seen leaping into each other’s arms and throwing drinks into the air after gathering at the club’s St James’ Park ground.
The expectation they have is that the new owners will pump hundreds of millions in the transfer market and help the club compete for major trophies again.
The Newcastle United Supporters Trust also welcomed the news, describing it as “the first real hope for many years”.
In a letter to the new owners, NUST added: “I can assure you that our members will welcome you. In April 2020 we asked our members if they were in favour of your takeover bid, with a resounding 96.7% in agreement. We look forward to working with you to rejuvenate one of the greatest football clubs in England.”
A similar message was conveyed by Nick Forbes, the Labour leader of Newcastle city council, who called it “a momentous day in the history of the club and our city”.
The new Saudi owners are understood to be committed to a women’s team, as well as the Rainbow Laces campaign in support of LGBT equality.
However Amnesty International questioned whether the Saudi owners should have been allowed to take over the club, and called on the Premier League to beef up its owners’ and directors’ test, so that human rights were considered in any future takeovers.
The sports minister Nigel Huddleston refused to be drawn as to whether that was a good idea, saying it was up to football to decide and that he did not want to prejudge a review into the sport led by MP Tracey Crouch.
“But we wouldn’t be having the whole review of football governance if we believed everything was perfect, so I wait to see what Tracey has to come out of this,” he added.
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