The marketing magic of football worked Thursday, October 7. On the announcement of the acquisition of Newcastle United by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund for 300 million pounds (353 million euros), a supporter went to celebrate the news in front of the stadium dressed in a djellaba and wearing a Mohammed mask Ben Salman, the crown prince of the Wahhabi kingdom. The man, who is notably accused of having ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, could he have dreamed of better publicity? In front of the stadium, other supporters chanted in chorus “We finally find our club”.
Newcastle United, second-to-last in the Premier League table, posting four defeats and three draws since early 2021, are joining the roster of football teams that serve as both geopolitical and financial investment pawns. Paris-Saint-Germain (Qatar) and Manchester City (Abu Dhabi) are two other illustrations.
For Amnesty International, this is an operation of “Image whitening” operated by Riyadh. “It is an obvious attempt by the Saudi authorities to wash away through sport, with the glamor of elite football, their catastrophic violations of human rights”, says Sacha Deshmukh, its director for the United Kingdom.
Embarrassed, the Premier League authorities tried to distance themselves. Officially, Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with the acquisition. This is carried out by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, one of the largest in the world, which, at the end of 2020, managed 350 billion euros. The Premier League says it: it “Received legal assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would not control the club”. Amanda Staveley, a Briton – also Prince Andrew’s ex-girlfriend – who made the deal possible and will sit on Newcastle United’s board, says the same, in an interview with the BBC: “PIF is an independent investment fund driven by business decisions. ”
Good conduct test
The reality is however written in the statutes of the PIF. Its president is… Mohammed Ben Salman and its board of directors includes six Saudi ministers. Obviously, the fund is the financial arm of the regime. The acquisition has long been frozen. In April 2020, the PIF struck a deal with outgoing owner British billionaire Mike Ashley. But, at the time, the Premier League had refused to give its approval. It has in fact a right of veto, the owners of the clubs having to pass a kind of test of good behavior. It is forbidden to have a criminal record or to have been expelled from a sports federation.
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