Saudi Arabian ‘Sportswashing’

By Scott Duke-Giles

Back in October 2021, the £300 million takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) was completed and announced to the world. The enormous amount of money involved in this deal was obscene even by Premier League standards, as Newcastle comfortably became the club with the richest owners in the world. For context, the second richest owner of a football club is Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour whose estimated net worth is £17 billion, whilst the PIF is thought to be worth an incredible £315 billion.

This takeover has caused concern and controversy. From a footballing perspective, the extraordinary wealth of Newcastle’s new owners mean they can afford to buy and pay any player they need. This criticism has been levied at Manchester City, who have won the league three out of the last four seasons (and look set to triumph this year too). In creating an uneven financial playing field, it makes the league predictable and somewhat boring when rich teams can coast to the top because levels of expenditure are irrelevant to them. It is probable that the newly ‘moneyed’ Newcastle United will contribute to this problem in the future.

Controversy is not confined to the sporting realm though. The PIF is the ninth largest fund in the world and will have vast influence over the Premier League and European football. Dr David Wearing spoke on the topic of ‘sportswashing’ and the motives behind the Saudi Arabian takeover.

“The Saudi regime is not buying Newcastle United because they are great lovers of football and they certainly do not have a great concern for the people of Newcastle and their concern with Newcastle United’s fortunes.”

“They completed the takeover for two main reasons. First is what is called sportswashing, which is authoritarian regimes using sports to whitewash their public image around the world. We have seen this in lots of instances – the Chinese with the 2008 Olympic Games, the Russians and the 2018 World Cup, Qatar with their ownership of Paris Saint Germain and Abu Dhabi’s ownership of Manchester City.”

“The second reason for buying the club is to invest in the wider community as well. One of the ways authoritarian regimes in the Gulf and the Middle East bind themselves to the big powers of the Global North (US, UK and France) is by investing in these economies.”

Newcastle United have struggled on the pitch this season, but thanks to big investment in players during the January transfer window, they have managed to get themselves out of the relegation zone this weekend. If Newcastle stay up and when they start the climb the Premier League table, debates around sportswashing are set to intensify.

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