Newcastle United and Saudi Arabia: Football is only part of the problem

YOU CANNOT blame Newcastle United fans for being over-excited – the Mike Ashley era is over, the prospect of unprecedented success has arrived on Tyneside and the Toon may finally join the elite band of clubs that currently dominate Europe. The celebrations outside St. James’ Park were reminiscent of scenes from the Wizard of Oz – “Ding, dong, the wicked witch is dead”.

Ashley may have found more sympathy from the masses if he had been a “Geordie” –  he wasn’t “one of us” – and the era of “nowt” he presided over was the penalty for prudent management, a lack of adventure and a certain level of stability. On the pitch, that translated into two relegations (2009 and 2016), one European campaign (2013), not a single semi-final in domestic cup competitions and eight full-time managerial appointments as well as a number of caretakers and interims. 

Only two managers asted over 100 games and the best performing was the underrated and often ill-treated Chris Hughton with a win rate of 59.38%. They tried to recreate past glories in hiring Kevin Keegan 2.0 and were also seduced by big names in the form of Sam Allardyce, Steve McClaren and Rafa Benitez. No matter who was appointed, nobody got close to adding to Newcastle’s four league titles, six FA Cups and the 1969 Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup.

Geography

If Newcastle happened to be in the south of England or a suburb of Manchester or Liverpool, the story might have been very different since the Magpies last polished some silverware. The club’s golden age was when coal was king and cities like Newcastle were the backbone of Britain’s industrial heritage, providing the sooty workforce that mined the seams or built ships. As the nation focused more and more on London and its satellites, provincial clubs like Newcastle became less prominent. The seriously wealthy backers that have changed the face of football focused on the game’s metropolitan elite. The possibility of a medium-sized provincial club winning the UEFA Champions League, such as Nottingham Forest did in 1979 and 1980, is now almost impossible.

Yet Newcastle is a club with a very distinct regional identity, as much part of the city as the Tyne river, the bridge that spans it, Newcastle Brown Ale and the very likeable accent that dominates the area. It is easy to form affection for Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and its people. Even though their football institution has been one of the most unsuccessful among top clubs, the fans remain committed and have never really written off the possibility of future success. Any potential investor looking at available clubs with critical mass and potential, will arrive at Newcastle pretty soon in the pecking order. It has happened to others with interesting pasts such as Wolves and Leeds and there are others who, one day, will come to the top of the list.

Hence, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) saw Newcastle United as an asset they’d like to own, even though the days of the fabled “hotbed” were over years ago. Whenever a middle eastern entity with bulging pockets tries to broaden its footprint, there’s always an element of mistrust. Culturally, the marriage is always a little uncomfortable on many levels. But the Gulf states and specifically, Saudi Arabia, have strong economic ties with the United Kingdom. The Gulf states (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) are the fourth biggest trading partner after the US, European Union and China.

The big issue surrounding the takeover of Newcastle is Saudi Arabia’s approach to human rights. Mike Ashley was despised because of his business approach, notably zero hours contracts, but essentially, if he had spent heavily on transforming Newcastle and won some trophies, most of the fans wouldn’t have fretted too much about the welfare of Ashley’s employees. Does anyone ever complain about Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Abu Dhabi at Manchester City, or Qatar at Paris Saint-Germain? Success has a habit of shelving any moral issues over the identity of club owners.  Yet dig beneath the surface and there’s many questions that can be asked about the origins and nature of the wealth that made it possible to buy all of these clubs.

Boundaries

This is where strong regulation is needed. Since 2008, financial services has been awash with new regulations, making it more difficult for banks and other firms. Compliance is one of the few growth industries in the financial world and it also applies to football. While some cavalier types see compliance as a hindrance, governance also protects stakeholders from getting into bed with the wrong people.

Is Saudi Arabia the wrong type of club owner? On the face of it, you could argue that as an ally and trading partner, the acquisition of Newcastle United by a UK partner is acceptable. If the concerns cannot be ignored, then a transaction to buy a football club should never be permitted or considered. Where do the boundaries truly lie and is it too late to change what is rapidly becoming the norm in modern football?

The UK has allowed the Saudi Arabian PIF to buy a £ 598 million stake in BP and invest in BT, newspapers, hotels and education. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has stakes in Twitter, Uber and Snapchat. Britain also authorised almost £ 2 billion worth of arms to be sold to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and has sold spyware to Saudi Arabia (source: UK DeclassifIed).

The involvement of PIF also makes the declaration that Newcastle’s new owner will be independent of the Saudi state vaguely ridiculous. The chair of PIF is none other than Mohammed bin Salman and it has been reported that he was involved in dialogue with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ensure the Newcastle deal went through with an apparent threat that the relationship between the two countries would be compromised if it did not reach a happy conclusion. No link, eh? 

Newcastle’s fans can avoid being challenged by pointing to the approvals, the government relationships and other reasons to be fairly ambivalent about what goes on inside Saudi Arabia. It’s not right, but it is a way out. The UK administration has rarely been open about its tie-up with them, but Mdawi al Rasheed of the London School of Economics, captured the problem perfectly: “By giving Gulf countries the opportunity to invest in Britain, despite their record on human rights, Britain becomes more dependent on these countries and unable to voice a critical opinion on their autocratic rule”. 

Saudi Arabia wants to improve its reputation and has been backing golf and motor sports in a bid to present a more modern, welcoming image. Critics merely write this off as “sports washing”, the practice of using investment in sport to gain greater legitimacy.

Problem

Do the fans really care who owns their club? Newcastle United are not alone here by any means, but they happen to be the latest example at a time when club ownership is very much in the spotlight and the subject of greed is very topical. The relationship between a club and its loyal fans is a simple one and also manifests itself as a very one-sided romance. The fans have little, if any, say in who owns a club and therefore cannot be blamed for any travelling band rolling into town with the latest snake-oil remedy to their problems. In the modern game, cash is king and ambition is, ultimately, demonstrated by how much of it you spend. 

The popular view of middle-eastern business is pots of infinite cash, so many fans interpret investment from the Gulf as limitless and transformational on a grand scale. Many will try and discard the criticism of Saudi Arabia, claiming it is none of their business and far away from home. The love of their club will overshadow any debate about human rights in much the same way that an earthquake in another part of the world is “not our problem”.

Conversely, those that have no strong feeling for Newcastle will see the deal as worrying and another blow against football’s moral code. There are other more toxic examples of Britain’s economic friendship with Saudi Arabia, but football captures headlines and is the game of the people. 

Needless to say, schadenfreude rules in football and the club’s opponents will rally against Saudi investment and use the human rights issue as a weapon to turn on Newcastle and their fans.

Will they worry too much? If the new regime promises a big war chest, which they undoubtedly will, Financial Fair Play permitting, then expectation will be high and even at this early stage, lists of possible signings will be circulating Tyneside. A new manager will surely be appointed, an acquisition that will send a signal to the rest of the football community.

The real winner in this game is currently Mike Ashley. He kept the club afloat in a sea of mediocrity while turning a profit and andreceived the selling price he was looking for. It wasn’t exciting and there was little in the way of joie de vivre at St. James’ Park. It was also unsuccessful. Having come through it, however, Newcastle United now have a different type of problem to deal with.

@GameofthePeople

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