IAN HERBERT: Saudi takeover is scheme to obscure brutality and bigotry

IAN HERBERT: The Saudi takeover of Newcastle is just a cynical scheme to obscure brutality, bigotry and misogyny… taking dirty money from a grubby state is a new low

  • Saudi Arabian consortium complete £305m deal to gain control of Newcastle
  • Fans gathered in great numbers outside St James’ Park to celebrate the news 
  • There is nothing to celebrate about a repressive regime taking control of a club
  • Expect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to be painted as a ‘saviour’ next 

Even before the deal had been done, the Saudis were being proclaimed as the saviours of Newcastle United, having banished the wretched Mike Ashley to history.

‘Enjoy your day. This is your time now,’ proclaimed the Twitter feed for a fans’ group backing the takeover bid, welcoming ’50million new black and white Saudi supporters’ aboard.

There will be a lot more of this from now on. Expect a carefully curated narrative about Saudi ‘saviour’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the weeks to come – put out there by some of the world’s most effective communications people, who are paid extremely well to spin beautiful lines about one of the most atrocious states on earth.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman leads the consortium who bought Newcastle

Fans celebrated on the streets outside St James’ Park at news of the £305m Saudi takeover

One piece of fabricated nonsense has already successfully stuck: the notion that this takeover does not constitute the Saudi state take-over of Newcastle, when the Saudi sovereign wealth fund overseen by Bin Salman will own 80 per cent of Newcastle’s shares. Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of that fund, will sit on the board.

But that deceit is subsidiary to the highly inconvenient one that will be called to mind every time Newcastle United proclaim themselves, from now on, to be a club committed to diversity and equality and with no time for misogyny or bigotry.

All of the above commitments apply to the people of Newcastle upon Tyne, an enlightened, joyous melting pot, borne of a rich seafaring past.

But the football club, settled in a nest of the city centre’s streets, has now become a device to obscure the casual brutality and nasty little secrets of Bin Salman – ‘or MBS’ as this little man likes colloquially to be called.

When MBS pitches up on Tyneside and walks past the Sir Bobby Robson statue, wearing a beneficent smile for the cameras, consider what happens to those who displease him back home.

They risk a fate like Jamal Khashoggi’s, the Saudi journalist and dissident who was seized, murdered and dismembered with a bone-saw at his country’s consulate in Istanbul, three years ago this month. MBS’s hit squad numbered 15 for that assassination, according to declassified American intelligence service documents.

The Abu Dhabis of Manchester City and the Qataris of Paris Saint-Germain have questions to answer on human rights, though they don’t extend to the killing of journalists. As Godforsaken football takeovers go, this one really does surpass the lot.

Mr Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, could barely believe that the English football authorities had sanctioned a takeover which legitimises this violent, rogue state and gives it a global platform. 

Cengiz said the Premier League was allowing the Crown Prince to ‘wash his reputation, and sully the name of sports’.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered three years ago and his fiancee urged the Premier League to oppose the Saudi regime being able to purchase a club in England’s top flight

Many other women will be feeling the same sense of bewilderment. Amnesty International cites the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a leading campaigner for the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia, which was finally permitted in 2018. She was jailed for more than 1,000 days and is under a five-year travel ban.

But there are also the stories, uncovered by the Pulitzer Centre’s painstaking research, of lesser known women who have fled slavery and abuse by husbands, brothers and fathers, in a Saudi state where they need men’s permission to marry or leave prison or a domestic abuse shelter.

When Newcastle’s new owners proclaim their club is a welcoming place for women, consider the cases of Saudis Rana and Farah, who escaped a few years back.

The malign threats to the two women began soon after they had reached Germany. There was shadowy surveillance by men in SUVs; messages on Twitter and Snapchat from pro-government accounts, warning them that they would pay for disgracing the reputation of Saudi Arabia; indications from back home that the authorities had been interrogating people associated with them.

MBS was not best pleased by stories of the increasing number of Saudis seeking asylum.

This kind of activity is also all too familiar to those in the country who are gay – a crime punishable by imprisonment. This and much more is what the Premier League are aligning themselves with now.

Mike Ashley’s 14-year reign as owner of Newcastle has come to an end with a £300m takeover

Crown Prince Bin Salman pictured with Boris Johnson – Bin Salman warned Johnson that Anglo-Saudi relations could be affected if the Premier League didn’t approve the takeover

There had been the briefest hope in recent years that football would not prostrate itself before such a despicable state and show F1 and boxing, who have gleefully taken the cash, what moral rectitude looks like.

The Spanish state broadcaster RTVE refused, on human rights grounds, to bid for the Spanish football Super Cup which the Saudis paid millions to stage.

Amnesty UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh, who said this deal represented a ‘clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football’, urged the Premier League to change their owners and directors test to address human rights issues.

It was not to be. In a 140-word statement on the takeover on Thursday night, the Premier League made no reference to human rights concerns, merely declaring themselves ‘pleased’ that the deal had been finalised.

The contentment of Newcastle’s supporters reflects the way that questions about the cash are never asked when a new owner promises football success.

A Newcastle United Supporters Trust survey found 93.8 per cent of members in favour. But this is dirty money from a dirty state: a new low for the game and a stain on one of our great football clubs. Both deserve better.

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