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The acquisition of the English club Newcastle would allow Saudi Arabia to offer a prestigious showcase in the Premier League. But the operation aroused significant reluctance, among human rights defenders as among some regional rivals in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom of Saudi Arabia had not yet officially emerged when the Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) won the English championship for the last time. Since 1927, this club in the North East of England has been trying to get back to the top of the bill, narrowly failing twice, in 1996 and 1997, behind Manchester United. At that time, NUFC had in its ranks the top scorer in the championship, the Englishman Alan Shearer. Since then, the club has had to settle for only a third place in 2003, and it has known some difficult periods punctuated by several passages in the second division. “The supporters have been suffering for a long time because the club has won nothing for decades,” Miguel Delaney, head of the football section for the daily newspaper The Independent, told France 24.
Back in the Premier League since 2017, the “Magpies” had a rather slow season (13e out of 20 after 29 days), before it was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It could however remain in the annals of this club if the consortium led by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is pilot Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane (MBS), manages to buy this historic club. According to the English press, a non-repayable advance of around 20 million euros has already been paid to the owner of the club, Mike Ashley, in the context of a takeover offer for 80% of the club for a total amount of 345 million. euros.
It is now up to the English Premier League (EPL), the institution responsible for the English Championship, to validate this operation. It is currently facing major economic difficulties caused by the pandemic and the arrival of a new major player logically represents good news for the economy of English professional football. But it must check whether the potential buyers also meet other criteria which are not of a financial nature.
This is not the case according to the non-governmental organization Amnesty International which has sent a letter to the president of the Premier League, Richard Masters, to warn him of the image risk run by his institution. “As long as these questions [sur les droits de l’Homme en Arabie saoudite] will not be resolved, the Premier League risks being fooled by those who want to use the prestige and glamor of the Premier League to cover deeply immoral actions, “wrote Kate Allen, British director of Amnesty. the NGO described the country’s human rights record as “disastrous” and several associations accuse Riyadh of wanting to wash with petrodollars its image considerably tarnished by the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 .
Sport to change its image
Qatar, too, has written to the presidents and leaders of the English championship clubs, asking them to open an investigation to determine whether the officials of this Saudi consortium were “the right people” to lead Newcastle. For more than fifteen years, this small country neighboring Saudi Arabia has made sport one of the axes of its diplomacy. This policy has notably resulted in a massive investment in certain clubs abroad, such as PSG, the creation of the audiovisual group beIN Sports, specialized in the acquisition and management of television rights, and the organization of events. major, the next being the Football World Cup in 2022. However Qatar says that Saudi Arabia has implemented a system of pirating its sports channels since 2017 and has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against Wahhabi kingdom for “intellectual property violations”.
This approach illustrates the growing rivalry in the field of sport between Doha and Riyadh, which experienced a severe diplomatic crisis in 2017. These two countries are investing very heavily in this sector, both to diversify their economies which are very dependent on oil rents and for project another image on the international scene. And Saudi Arabia has been particularly active in recent months, as evidenced by the organization in January of the final of the Spanish Supercup or the Dakar rally.
Owning a club playing in the prestigious English football championship would be an important victory for the Saudi government. He could thus imitate the Saudi prince Abdullah Bin Mossaad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saoud who, after a long legal battle, became at the end of 2019 the majority shareholder of the club of Sheffield United Football Club, brilliant this season. Saudi businessmen who probably dream of one day achieving the same success as Cheikh Mansour. This member of the Emirati royal family offered himself in 2008 the club of Manchester City, with which he already won four titles of champion of England, as well as numerous national cups.
Newcastle fans logically hope for a similar fate for the Magpies. But as Miguel Delaney notes, many fans are divided. “They are aware of the criticisms leveled against Saudi Arabia. But some are delighted and already display on their twitter profile portraits of MBS or the Saudi flag,” said the British journalist. They want only one thing: that Newcastle now plays the leading roles in English and European football, like the other clubs of the Old Continent which have already largely benefited from the money of the Gulf States.