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Feature Article
2021-11-01

The Premier League Prince: Status Symbol or Image Laundering?

The acquisition of a long-suffering Premier League football club by Saudi's sovereign wealth fund has renewed charges of "sports-washing" its negative international image. But is the yearning for a high profile sports team more than a simple distraction from trouble at home?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Fans of Newcastle United in Northern England have been overjoyed since the acquisition of their beleaguered, cash-starved club by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), their delight manifested in scenes of ecstatic supporters waving Saudi flags and decked out in traditional attire (officials later felt obliged to put out a statement urging fans to refrain from wearing mock Arab clothing or head covering, while recognizing the intent was to show appreciation). The deal comes fourteen months after PIF had withdrawn a $415 million bid to buy the north-east club from its owner, and had been further prolonged by legal disputes regarding the fitness of the consortium (PIF has a majority stake; RB Sports & Media and PCP Capital Partners have a smaller share between them). Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of PIF, will become non-executive chairman. However, the involvement of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), has caused a major uproar.

In order for the deal to go forward, the Premier League had insisted on legally-binding assurances that the "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club", and was apparently satisfied in that regard. Yet, PIF, the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund, sets out on its own website that it falls "under the chairmanship and guidance" of MbS, and that "the Board is responsible for overseeing PIF's long-term strategy, investment policy, and performance." The nature of the assurances the League was given that MbS, the de facto head of state in place of his ageing father the king, would not be involved in PIF's control of the club is unclear. Furthermore, al-Rumayyan, the new non-executive chairman of Newcastle United, has close ties to the crown prince. Before he was personally tapped to head PIF (at short notice, and given no choice), al-Rumayyan was involved in the controversial "anti-corruption" campaign of November 2017, when he was ordered to seize and transfer 20 companies to the sovereign wealth fund's ownership as part of the purge which ensnared hundreds of princes and businessmen. One of these companies turned out to be Sky Prime Aviation Services, a charter jet company operating two of the planes used by Saudi agents implicated in the plot to kill Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

In a clear reference to the concept of "sports-washing" - which denotes a means for repressive governments to promote their country and garner positive media representation - Amnesty International stated that "Saudi ownership of St James' Park (Newcastle's stadium) was always as much about image management for [the crown prince] and his government, as it was about football". The charge typically refers to countries or states using sports clubs or events to "airbrush" away past human rights abuses and improve their global image, a contention which has particular resonance in the case of Saudi, following Khashoggi's murder and the widespread crackdown at home on activism and dissent. Just this month, the Kingdom has faced criticism for the death of Mustafa al-Darwish, executed for crimes he allegedly committed as a juvenile, and Musa al-Qarni, a prominent dissident academic and cleric, who died while serving a 15-year prison sentence (the result of severe beatings and torture, rights groups allege). Seen from this perspective, Saudi is guilty of sports-washing a bleak human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football.

Indeed, the country has spent $1.5bn on high-profile international sporting events in a bid to bolster its reputation, including a $650mn ten-year deal with Formula One, as well as other prestige events including a Heavyweight World Boxing Title fight, the Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament, and the Dakar Rally desert race. But the Newcastle deal represents the first major acquisition of an overseas sports team, and the first jump into the world of high-profile associations with top-rank football.

Related articles: Spectacles in the Desert: Sports-washing or Catalyst for Change?
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Page 2: ulterior motives?
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Commentary
Spectacles in the Desert: Sports-washing or Catalyst for Change?

All eyes are on Saudi Arabia as the country prepares to host its inaugural Formula One race in Jiddah, the latest in a series of high-profile sporting events that have shattered the commonly-held image of an austere and reclusive kingdom which shuns the corrupting influence of the West. At the same time, these spectacles have become embroiled in controversy, with concern that they are being used to divert attention from human rights abuses at home, in a phenomenon that has been termed "sports-washing". Is the use of sports and entertainment merely a cynical public relations ploy, or is there more than meets the eye?

The Taliban and Royal Support: a Change in Outlook?

Saudi Arabia's nearly complete silence in the wake of the rapid and astonishing collapse of the Afghanistan government is remarkable, given that the Kingdom was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban's control of the country before the 2001 US invasion. Further, the royal family has had controversial dealings with the Taliban and the al-Qa'ida leaders they sheltered in the past, and their involvement with the group is still a matter of ongoing contention. Yet, in light of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's efforts to moderate religious hardliners at home, would the Saudis now prefer to keep a Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan at arm's length?

Changing Dynamics: Family Enterprise or One-Man Rule?

While Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman dominates the headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that two of his brothers, Abd al-Aziz and Khalid, are both highly accomplished in their own right. But to what extent do their policies and views reflect the influence of the powerful heir to the throne, or indeed, the king?

From Washington to Paris: Changing Times or Business as Usual?

As the Kingdom's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is entertained in Washington, another royal is under fire in France for allegedly enslaving his maids, bringing to mind the notorious affair of Princess Hussa bint Salman, the sister of Khalid, who was accused of threatening to murder a contractor working at her Paris apartment. With talk of a "fundamental" transformation of Saudi society, it is an open question whether real change is afoot, or whether it is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

An Imprisoned Princess: Red Lines Crossed or Factional Dispute?

Princess Basmah bint Saud continues to languish in prison, one of a number of high-profile royals imprisoned without charge or "disappeared" on the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Is her case, like that of many others, the consequence of a falling-out with the heir to the throne, or is the real motive an internal family dispute?

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