Written by Andrew Page
A recent article in the leading Newcastle United fanzine put forward the view that the takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi Public Investment Fund “is predominantly about the money.” Newcastle United - it's all about the money! - (true-faith.co.uk). The obvious implication being that there isn’t really much difference between Newcastle’s owners and the ownership at many other clubs – they are all seeking to make a profit, and a lot of their money is dirty to some degree. To support this view, the author points to recent comments by club chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan:
“We bought the whole team for £350m, instead of only having 30% in another team for £700m.”
"You can see Chelsea was sold for $3.5bn. So, my potential now is to go from £350m to at least $3.5bn.”
I’d actually agree with the author’s stance to a point - it does seem possible that the Saudis might be planning to depart in a decade or so after securing a healthy profit on their investment. But will they even last that long? The continuing spotlight on their ongoing human rights abuses by the media, organisations such as Amnesty International and ESOHR, as well as fan groups and the football world in general, could force authorities to tighten up the Director's fit and proper rule. And in any case, it’s still very strange for a fan to seek to reduce the issue of Saudi involvement in our club to merely a question of money.
During the 14 years of previous owner Mike Ashley’s stewardship, it was common to see fans frustrated by Ashley’s shabby treatment of the club, as he renamed the stadium and refused to communicate with some journalists and supporters, all while linking the club to his exploitative Sports Direct empire. Aside from the lack of investment, the image of the club he projected was terrible, and that mattered in itself.
There are no owners in football who project a worse image to the world than Saudi Arabia. The harm they do to the reputation of this club and its city is enormous, as people and behaviour that previously would have been unacceptable become normalised, and it is hard to place a value on the damage done to the club’s reputation.
Head coach Eddie Howe has been left stuttering for an answer at press conferences when asked how he felt about the club’s owners – it’s a question that isn’t going to go away.
In 2021, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman was still being described as a pariah that world leaders avoided. But at the first game after the Saudi-led takeover was completed in October 2021, the man he personally selected to be governor of his country’s Public Investment Fund was given a raucous reception by 50,000 Newcastle supporters live on television. What financial value would the Saudis have placed on that? And what did people watching around the world think of Newcastle United?
Newcastle United director Amanda Staveley has waxed lyrical about her love of women’s football several times now, stating how much she wants to encourage opportunity for girls through the sport. Journalists have unquestioningly repeated these PR lines. She most recently shared her views on this subject just weeks after the majority stakeholders she speaks for sentenced two women to 34 and 45 years in jail for their social media activity, but her comments go unchallenged by North East reporters.
When the Saudi Minister for Sport, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Saud, followed the club’s account back in April 2020, the story was reported by Newcastle’s regional paper The Chronicle’s website. The sports minister’s father is Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who also served in the Saudi government. He resigned from his position as Director General of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency — a post he had held for 23 years — 10 days before the attack on the Twin Towers. He met Osama bin Laden several times and was instrumental in cementing the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan. In 2003 he admitted on a live call-in show that 6 British men had been tortured by his intelligence agents. The Chronicle didn’t think to mention any of this information about the sports minister’s family, instead preferring to enthuse about the prospects for the takeover.
And at the final home match of last season, The Chronicle reported that the club’s new director Majed Al Sorour had publicly thanked the Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar for attending the match. His father had been the Saudi ambassador to the US. In July 2016, withheld pages from the official U.S congressional report on 9/11 were released, revealing that he had paid thousands of dollars to a man who passed funds to 2 of the 9/11 hijackers. 2 years ago a US judge ordered him to give testimony on his possible knowledge of these events.
These are the type of people who are now able to publicly associate themselves with our club without members of the North East media or Newcastle fanzine editors batting a collective eyelid.
Before the takeover was completed, The Newcastle-based Wylam Brewery plastered a flattering image of Mohammed bin Salman standing on the St James’ Park pitch on the side of one of their beer cans. Because bin Salman could now be associated with our football club, someone thought that was appropriate. Following the resulting backlash, I never saw that can on sale, but given the speed at which things have deteriorated since then, I don’t know how many people would bother complaining if the brewery tried it again. The team now turn out in a Saudi Arabia-themed kit, and in January they spent a week training in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah. The club have confirmed that more of these trips have already been planned.
The Saudis have only been in charge for a year. Who knows how much damage will have been done to the reputation of our club and city after they’ve been here for a decade or so?
Newcastle United will never be just about the money – it isn’t just another business - and that is why the Saudis have to go.