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Sportswashing: when money talks, everyone listens

February 28, 2023 at 6:45 pm

Newcastle United football club badge, 23 March 2019 [Kelly McClay/Flickr]

No one likes to be ignored, but before it can happen, you have to be heard in the first place. In many ways, that makes the deliberate turning of a deaf ear even more upsetting and offensive.

Such disregard is practiced by too many supporters of Saudi-owned Newcastle United Football Club. The so-called Toon Army turned out in force at the weekend to watch their team in a cup final at Wembley Stadium. Among those cheering on the Magpies was at least one of the brothers of Saudi sportswasher-in-chief, the much-feared Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Since the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia became the heir to the throne, the number of executions in the kingdom has almost doubled. The past six years are among the bloodiest in its modern history. Human rights depend entirely on his whims and fancies.

In August 2021, when rumours were rife about the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, I went to watch the first home game of the season against West Ham United. Before the match, I helped to hand out 5,000 leaflets drawing attention to the appalling human rights record of the Saudi regime and soon-to-be owners of the club. In particular, I highlighted the plight of my old friend, Saudi architect and engineer Dr Ahmed Farid Moustapha, who was (and still is) in an unknown location in Saudi Arabia. We continue to try to get him released from the hellhole in which he is undoubtedly being held by the Saudi regime.

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Standing alongside human rights group SANAD outside St James’ Park on that Saturday afternoon, our leaflets were largely accepted with hangdog expressions, feelings of guilt or embarrassment. The truth is that my beloved football club has sold its soul for success on the field and most fans have accepted the situation. Fans like me are being ignored.

I don’t have to live under such a brutal regime, so I’m not suffering any hardship as a result of my protest. However, fellow fans know the position with the Saudis but choose to ignore the kingdom’s lack of human rights. The plight of others just doesn’t matter in and around St James’, it seems.

“What can we do?” one fan asked me. “There’s nothing we can do, it’s not our fault. Just enjoy the good times, we’ve waited long enough for this.” He wasn’t the only one, those who were with me on that day confirmed.

In many ways, though, he was right. Would Bin Salman, who holds the power of life and death in his blood-stained hands, ever save anyone from death row? Last year he made a mockery of the US President, the so-called most powerful man on the planet, when Joe Biden humiliated himself by asking the prince during a state visit to lower oil prices and improve his human rights record. After a jocular fist bump, the smirking Bin Salman did neither. So even if the tens of thousands of Newcastle fans at Wembley last weekend had voiced some sort of protest, it too would have fallen on deaf Saudi ears.

But what about Bin Salman’s younger brother, though? Prince Turki Bin Salman was there for the Carabao Cup Final sporting a Newcastle scarf in team colours. He might have sat up and taken notice if only the fans had decided to make their voices heard about Saudi human rights, or their absence. It’s all a moot point now, of course, but what if…?

The rejuvenated club still failed to pick up a trophy at Wembley, losing 2-0 against Manchester United. After the eye-watering amounts of money pumped into Newcastle, there may well be other opportunities for Newcastle fans to voice their concerns on the biggest of football’s stages and shame Bin Salman into doing something positive. We can but hope.

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Another football fan who knows exactly what it is like to be ignored is Abdullah Al-Howaiti, whose plight is being highlighted by the members of the pressure group Newcastle United Fans Against Sportswashing. Last weekend they attempted to shame their fellow supporters into adopting the case of Al-Howaiti who, at the tender age of 14, was tortured into confessing to a crime and put on death row in Saudi Arabia six years ago. The group has also sent a letter on behalf of a grieving family member to Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe after Hassan Al-Rabea was renditioned from Morocco to answer charges in Saudi for exercising his right to free speech on social media. His tweets could see him sentenced to 90 years in prison.

Ordinary fans were said to be outraged that Howe has been dragged into the sportswashing row, but they needn’t worry too much; so far, he has chosen to ignore the letter. He alone knows why, but imagine the impact he could have if he issued a few well-chosen words about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The tens of thousands of fans who hang onto his every word would follow suit, I’m sure. Sitting in silence is not an option for anyone with an ounce of compassion, Eddie. And you have compassion, we know; your efforts to get players and coaches to open up to and support each other is strong evidence of that.

Mohammed Bin Salman might treat the US president with contempt, but he does care deeply about Brand Saudi and its global reputation. That is why any comments from the Newcastle manager would be taken seriously; more, I believe, than Joe Biden’s idle threats.

Someone else who cannot be ignored is football legend Cristiano Ronaldo who now plays for Saudi club Al-Nassr. As the highest-paid professional footballer ever, his contract apparently includes off-field promotional activities as well as playing commitments. Nobody in football understands personal branding and the power of marketing like Ronaldo. He is the most followed person in the world on Instagram with a staggering 546 million followers.

As such, it is hardly surprising that another human rights group, Reprieve, has taken up the case of Abdullah Al-Howaiti and is urging Ronaldo to support the young man. There is no game more inclusive than football, and still no name bigger than Cristiano Ronaldo. As well as his mission to increase the kingdom’s visibility in international sport and entertainment, he has promised to encourage developments across the country. Will he accept this challenge and take up Al-Howaiti’s case? If anyone can, Ronaldo can. The now 20-year-old young football fan will certainly hope that Reprieve’s campaign criticising Saudi Arabia’s claim to have eliminated the death penalty for children is a success, and that Ronaldo can play a part.

There is so much good that could be done with the Saudi millions, but using them to sportswash the kingdom’s human rights failings is not one of them. Come on football fans everywhere, support your club and stand up for justice. Sportswashing money talks, and everyone listens. But you can talk as well. Your collective voice will not only be heard, but the owners will also listen. The Amanda Staveleys of this world have to, because PR is important. They know that, and we know that, so when we all talk, we can make sure that they listen.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.