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Significant Saudi investment into British sport: it was only a matter of time

Posted: Mon, 28 Feb 2022 09:58

Significant Saudi investment into British sport: it was only a matter of time

The UK and Saudi Arabia have shared a long-standing bilateral relationship, based on trade and defence, however this is now pivoting to include sport as a main element of the relationship. Which has been highlighted by the Secretary of State stating "culture, tourism and sports,can be used to strengthen our relationship" when discussing her recent trip to Saudi Arabia. Saudi investment into British sport through their Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, has created a range of opinions strongly for and against. Therefore, this article will explain why the Saudis are investing in British sport and discuss the ethics of the relationship from a sporting perspective, using Newcastle United FC as an example throughout.

As part of their 2030 national vision to decrease their reliance on oil, Saudi Arabia is significantly investing in a multitude of areas, sport being an example. The UK and Saudi Arabia share a mutually beneficial trade partnership, so it was only a matter of time before they took over a Premier League club; Britain's finest export. The investment follows a coherent sporting strategy by the Saudi state whereby they have hosted Formula 1, world heavyweight boxing title fights, WWE and domestic football Super Cups (Italy & Spain). These events are not insignificant, demonstrating how serious the Saudi's are about fulfilling their 2030 national vision.

Perhaps the most telling indicator is the Saudi's plans to build a new city "Neom", which is being labelled the future of sport. It would not be unlikely to see a Saudi FIFA World Cup bid in the future to support their national vision. Therefore, this is not a billionaire investing in British sport for fun, as has been the stereotype in the past, rather the world's largest sovereign wealth fund investing in sport as a strategic and calculated political move. Sport and geopolitics are inextricably linked with an English Premier League club at the heart of it.

It is likely Newcastle United FC will be successful as a result of the Saudi takeover, Manchester City (Abu Dhabi) and PSG (Qatar) have witnessed unparalleled success since being purchased by an oil rich state and Saudi Arabia has even more resources than the aforementioned states. However, the ethics of the takeover must be questioned. Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record, for example "homosexuality remains prohibited and punishable by flogging and imprisonment".

According to the UN, this is the state that is responsible for murdering the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi PIF owns a Premier League club, the same PIF owns an aeroplane company that transported Newcastle United to Saudi Arabia, the sister company of that is Sky Prime, which is PIF owned and provided the transport for those responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It is hardly surprising Amnesty International have labelled the takeover as sportwashing - the practice of nation states investing in sports to improve their tarnished image.

However, as this article has argued, the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is much more complex than simply aiming to improve their image. Despite this complexity, Saudi Arabia will undoubtedly improve their national image through association with the Premier League, the biggest sports league in the world. Whether this is an intended consequence or not. An example is Manchester City, Abu Dhabi has a similar human rights record to Saudi Arabia, yet due to their success, this is mostly forgotten.

Sports clubs historically have been community institutions, which are now being used by authoritarian Governments for political purposes. If the murdering of a journalist is not sufficient evidence to prevent the takeover of a football club, where does sport draw the moral line? It appears to be influenced by the nature of the relationships between the states. Although the UK Government took an admirable stance in joining the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China, due to human rights concerns, they are still allowing Saudi Arabia to invest in British sports, in spite of their highly questionable human rights record.

Ultimately, Saudi investment into British sports is not an outlier, it follows a trend of the UK Government welcoming Saudi investment into other sectors, sport has just followed. Despite this, their human rights record is poor and they should not be allowed to invest in sports. However, sports are a multi-billion-pound sector with loyal fans, making it an attractive method to diversify oil riches. Excluding human rights groups and a handful of journalists, there is limited discussion on how morally wrong it is for an authoritarian Government to invest in British sports. Therefore, it can be reasonably expected that more Governments will invest in British sports.

Owen Chengun - February 2022

Tags: Corruption, Ethics, Policy, Soft Power, Sport

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