Sportswashing alive and well


The sporting world seems more concerned with money than with the the activities of the regimes who supply it

August 2022

Two sporting events took place more or less at the same time today : Newcastle United Football Club will be playing Manchester City today and Joshua Reynolds fought a boxing match in Jedda. The connection? Both events are heavily funded by the Saudis as part of its sportswashing activities. They hope by directing attention to the sporting activities, the gaze of the world will be deflected from the horrors of the regime itself: the beheadings and amputations, the use of torture and unfair trials, the brutal silencing of any opposition and the denial of equal rights to women in the kingdom.

A leader in the Observer newspaper today (21 August 2021) suggested that Newcastle United supporters should observe a minutes silence at the start of the match against Manchester City (whose own financing by UAE’s Sheikh Mansour also raised questions with its use of torture, abuse of migrant labourers and unfair trials) in recognition of the draconian 34 year sentence handed down to Salma al-Shehab for faintly ludicrous crimes of ‘disrupting public order’ and allegedly publishing ‘false rumours’. Perhaps the writer of the Observer editorial had not looked at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and in particular, the sports pages. Had they done so they would have observed (!) that nowhere in the pages of stories about the club, its players and assorted transfers, was there any mention of the goings on by their funders in Saudi or the fate of Salma*.

A successful policy

In most of the reports about the Joshua match, the focus was on his childish sobbing because he lost narrowly to the Ukrainian. Both Newcastle and Joshua Reynolds are in receipt of substantial sums from Mohammed bin Salman. One has to admit it is a largely successful policy. As far as the sports writers and supporters are concerned, it’s the sport that matters and the nature of the dirty money seems to be of little interest to them. Pages of print are taken up with the activities on the field or in the ring and the supporters are not exposed to the unseemly activities of the regime which makes it all possible.

Sport seems almost detached from the political world despite the fact that huge amounts of money to keep the football league in place comes from a variety of dubious sources and despotic regimes. The vast sums paid in eye-watering transfers do not just come from ticket prices or from thin air. Vast amounts are also available for golf, tennis, Formula 1 and horse racing.

The word ‘sportswashing’ is relatively new but using sport to enhance a regime goes back to the interwar years at least with Mussolini and the 1934 World Cup. Post war and the communist regimes of Russia and East Germany engaged in it to enhance their own prestige but with their own sports people. Many sports are involved including tennis, golf, cycling, F1 and horse racing.

The desire for success by football clubs in particular means that money matters more than anything else. If a club cannot populate its team with the best players, acquired at great expense, it cannot succeed in the league or in other competitions. A kind of dependency grows and questions of propriety and the sordid nature or source of the money get short shrift. When the Saudi funding of Newcastle first came to light, there seemed little concern among supporters about the regime as witnessed in the below-the-line comments in the Chronicle and other social media. Success was the thing and getting rid of Mike Ashley the driving force.

There is no getting away from the fact that sport is a significant element of our culture. Millions watch it on TV, attend matches, buy the kit of their favourite club and read the sports pages. Sportsmen and women and sports commentators are among the top earners in the media universe. They appear immune from any moral opprobrium. They appear on panel shows like the BBC’s A Question of Sport. The moral chasm however is alarming. Anthony Joshua for example, when asked about human rights before a previous bout in Saudi, said he hadn’t heard of Amnesty as he was too busy training at the gym. As the sums mount and more tyrants join in the game of sanitising their reputations by using sport, the question is, will there come a time when the money is so egregious that the political class, or even the sports authorities themselves, begin to take notice? So far, somnolence and heads remaining firmly in sand seems to hold sway.

*There were references in the paper at the time of the funding takeover.

Saudi takeover of Newcastle football club


The news today of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is condemned by Amnesty

It was announced today (7 October 2021) that the Saudi Public Investment Fund has agreed a £300m takeover of Newcastle United Football Club. This has resurrected the argument about ‘Sportswash’ and countries with poor human rights records using sport to try and create a better image for themselves. Saudi Arabia has a particularly dire human rights record with the routine use of torture, capital punishment often by primitive means and in public, the poor treatment of women and the silencing of opposition to the regime.

The takeover has been welcomed in Newcastle and it was suggested by a reporter in the City that the fans were jubilant as it will mean the end of Mike Ashley’s ownership and the poor record by the club in the league during his time. Newcastle Chronicle has considerable coverage and photos of large numbers of jubilant fans. The newspaper describes the atmosphere as ‘electric’. On Twitter a tweet said it was about ‘returning a sense of pride’.

Newcastle is not the only football club or sport to accept money from dubious regimes so it would be unfair to single them out. Saudi’s human rights record is particularly dubious however. The list is long and includes the likely murder and dismemberment by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, the repression of dissidents and human rights defenders, several members of the royal family are still held incommunicado and there is no freedom of religion other than Islam.

Yemen is also a stain on the country with nearly 8,000 killed in air raids including 2,000 children. There is a blockade in place adding to the misery in the country.

Newcastle supporters can also claim that our own royal family and senior ministers have frequently visited the country and are on visible and seemingly good terms with Mohammed bin Salman. The UK is also a major supplier of weapons to the regime, despite evidence of the harm done in their use. To condemn the deal is, they might argue, hypocritical. The Saudis also own considerable real estate in London.

While all this is true, there is no escaping the reality of a terrible regime buying a famous football club to enable it to enhance its image in the world. Although the fans seem delighted with the decision, it remains the case that the money is tainted and from a particularly dire regime.

Sport and human rights


The use of sport to sanitise regimes with atrocious human rights records may be increasing

The use of sport and ‘sports wash’ to give favourable publicity to regimes engaged in a range of human rights abuses is probably on the increase and has been particularly noticeable this year.  Sport is now a major international business and involves huge amounts of money.  Some sport is international in scope and has audiences numbered in the millions.  With such a captive audience, it is small wonder that countries who want to sanitise their reputations and present wholesome images of themselves, turn to sport to deliver those images.

Sport is also closely connected with the media and there are sometimes frenzied negotiations to get rights to publish or transmit sporting events.  With so much invested in securing rights and harvesting the advertising which goes with it, there is little time, space or inclination to question too much what goes on behind the scenes.  Sports pages live at the back of most newspapers and exist in a kind of private world.  Pages of dramatic photos of footballers, cricketers, rugby players and others are displayed seemingly detached from the rest of the world.

Abuses are many and include the terrible conditions workers endure building stadia in the Gulf for the football world cup.  Athletes themselves are subject to abuse by their trainers and coaches and British Cycling has been subject to allegations of this kind by a whistle-blower.  Drugs have been a perennial problem and infect many sports.

In recent years, we have seen more examples of sports wash.  We featured the attempt by Saudi Arabia to fund the Newcastle Football Club as part of its campaign to present a better image of the country.  A feature of that campaign was the encouragement it received from the the club’s supporters.

Holding this rally is ‘grotesque’

 

Today (6 January 2021), attention has focused on the Dakar rally which will pass close to the prison where Loujain al-Hathloul is held for campaigning for the right of women to drive.  The regime has been going through some contortions to get itself out of a PR mess of its own making.  The threat to imprison her for a lengthy jail term were dropped and with suspended sentences she should be released in a few months.  Loujain was kidnapped, held without access to a lawyer and tortured.  The rally is organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation whose website does not appear to make claims about human rights adherence.

A tweet from Grant Liberty says:

It is utterly grotesque that at the same time Saudi authorities will host a motor sport event — including women drivers — the heroes that won their right to drive languish in jail.  5 January 

Loujain’s sister said in a tweet:

No-one should be fooled by the Saudi regime’s attempts at sportswashing … Racers might not know it, but their participation there is to hide and whitewash the host’s crimes.  Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister 5 January

These trends suggest that sport needs to take greater interest in human rights and what is happening in the countries they compete in.  If they are being used to sanitise the reputation of regimes who torture, arrest opposition leaders, human rights defenders, lawyers and generally ignore the human rights of their citizens, they must ask themselves ‘is this what sport is for?’  Huge interest was generated when the footballer Marcus Rashford was influential in forcing the government to change its mind over school meals.  In some areas therefore, sport is beginning to use its power and its huge following to effect change.

But all too often, the lure of big money and a willingness to look the other way, seems to be the prevailing ethos.

 

 

Newcastle and Saudi money


UPDATE 22 JUNE

WTO ruling puts sale of the club to a Saudi backed investment vehicle in doubt.

Strong local support for the Saudi investment

In a previous post we discussed the possible purchase of Newcastle United Football club by a consortium using Saudi funds.  The consortium wishing to purchase the Newcastle Football club using Saudi money from their sovereign wealth fund is receiving strong local support.  The local newspaper the Newcastle Chronicle has run several pieces discussing the various moves and bidding in the saga.  A poll shows overwhelming support for the purchase:

The Newcastle United Supporters Trust has thrown its weight behind the potential takeover of the club after publishing a survey of members which showed overwhelming support for the buy out.

A Trust survey has found 96.7% of their members are in favour of the proposed takeover by Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners, along with the Reuben Brothers and the Saudi Arabian PiF.   Mark Douglas, Chronicle, 25 April 2020

It is the comments pieces which are most revealing however.  Supporters are passionate about their club and want it to do well, understandably so.  They do not take kindly to doubts expressed by Amnesty or others about the wisdom of the take over.  One writer sums up the situation well;

It would be hugely hypocritical and financially damaging if the government (which deals in billions of pound worth of arms with the Saudi’s) were to step in and put a stop to this deal going through. Why should NUFC be forced to act as a deterrent to the Saudi human rights. Organisations such as amnesty international (sic) and the UN have been unable to enforce any legal obligation on the Saudi’s so why should a football club be expected to do so.  Both Amnesty and the UN should be able to enforce a political solution, and not try to use NUFC as leverage. We won’t be the first Premiership club to be owned by Saudi’s or another middle eastern domain, non of whom have good Human Rights reputations. I cannot believe for one minute that the government would have any legal right to block this deal and the FA have allowed other clubs to be purchased by Saudi’s previously so they have already set a precedence.  NEWCASTLE500

He or she has a point.  Saudi is the largest purchaser of arms from the UK.  Royalty and a succession of ministers and prime ministers have paid court to the Saudis so why should NUFC forego a huge injection of cash when the government is obviously keen to do so?  On 26 April 2020 it was revealed that the UK government has increased arms sales to regimes with a poor human rights record.  Two wrongs do not make a right however. The British government is so ensnared in arms sales to Saudi that to stop would cause enormous damage to our arms industry and to our balance of payments.  Small wonder the minister, Oliver Dowden, wants to keep well away from the problem.  They Work for You reveals he generally votes against human rights and has voted for the abolition of the Human Rights Act.

If the Chronicle’s survey results reflect what people in Newcastle think, it is truly depressing.  Is the only consideration the success or otherwise of their football club?  The coverage also sought the opinions of past players who were also said to be enthusiastic.

Reading the Newcastle Chronicle pieces one would gain only small hints of the human rights situation in Saudi or what they are doing in Yemen.  The pieces discuss the ins and outs of the deal largely to the exclusion of all else.  If supporters read more of the nature of the money they are so keen to get their hands on, would they react differently?

Football has become enmeshed in money.  Without huge budgets, no team can hope to win titles or afford to buy the best players.  Has the desire for success and prestige corrupted the game?  As Kate Allen, director of Amnesty put it:

The Premier League is putting itself at risk of becoming a patsy of those who want to use the Premier League to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the global footballing community.

A classic example of sports wash.

Newcastle United and sports wash


Plans by a consortium funded by Saudi Arabia to purchase Newcastle United come under attack

Anyone who has followed the Yemen conflict or is the least bit aware of human rights around the world, will know of Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on this front.  For five years they have waged a brutal war in Yemen leaving the country a wreck and many thousands dead.  We have frequently described their activities in previous blogs on this site. Their bombing of civilian targets is a disgrace as is the process of what is called ‘double tapping’ that is, circulating round after an attack on a hospital, school or wedding, and returning for a second round of bombing to kill the rescue workers.  That the RAF is involved in this activity – supposedly ‘advising’ the Saudis – is a stain on the UK’s international reputation.

Their human rights record is appalling.  Torture is common and confessions extracted using the process used to justify executions.  Death by beheading in public displays are the norm.  Women’s rights are severely restricted despite the promised reforms.  Human rights activists are regularly targeted and of course there is the murder of Adnam Kashoggi who was almost certainly dismembered after his death by Saudi personnel.

Now they want to purchase Newcastle United football club via the Public Investment Fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the sum of £500m is mentioned in a deal.

Kate Allen, Amnesty’s Director said:

Amnesty UK director Kate Allen said in a separate letter to Masters [chief executive of the Premier League]: “So long as these questions [about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record] remain unaddressed, the Premier League is putting itself at risk of becoming a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the Premier League and the global footballing community”.

She suggests that Newcastle fans to familiarise themselves with the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia before the deal goes ahead.  For many fans, their chief desire is to see a new owner to replace Mike Ashley, the current one.

Saudi Arabia has been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to improve its image and using ‘sports wash’ is part of that plan.  The sums of money are huge and it appears that sports people are unconcerned at the source of the money or how tainted it is before accepting and cashing in the cheques.

The country is the major overseas purchaser of our arms exports.  Royalty have been frequently pressed into service as part of the charm offensive.  Unsurprisingly, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden MP said it was a ‘matter for the Premier League’ and the government is unlikely to intervene.

Football is big business and the sums paid to players and their transfer fees can be stratospheric.  Players are hugely influential and many young people see them as heroes.  Although players are not involved in this transaction directly, they will ultimately benefit from it financially.

To quote Jonathan Lieu writing in the Guardian:

And so, welcome to the new orthodoxies of English football.  Saudi Arabia is good.  Amnesty International is bad.  New signings are more important than murder, broadcast rights more important than women’s rights, and a basic sense of humanity is ultimately expendable if you can scrape into next season’s Europa League.  It’s a manifesto, to be sure.  Just don’t expect anyone with a scintilla of decency to feel warmly about it.  (23 April 2020)

Sources: Guardian, BBC, CNN

 

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