LONDON — A former ship-building city in North East England may seem unlikely place for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to rehabilitate his defiled reputation.
But still last week, hundreds of Newcastle residents gathered outside the city’s football stadium to pay tribute to the power behind the Saudi throne – the man commonly known as MBS.
Some tied tea towels around their heads, others waved met Saudi flags and some even wore masks of the crown prince himself – a world leader accused of a raft of human rights violations and of ordering the murder of a prominent journalist.
On a sporting level, these supporters had good reason to cheer. Saudi Arabia’s $400 Billion Public Wealth Fund just bought their long-suffering football team, Newcastle United, at night making it the worldrichest club. But the deal has sparked criticism that Saudi Arabia is using the team, Founded in 1892, as a vehicle for “sport wash.”
In other words, Saudi Arabia is accused of try to whitewash it reputation so that it is no longer synonymous with a cheeky one absolute monarchy die activists jail, out public beheadings and suppressed women and the LGBTQ community, and becomes known instead as the smiling one face of international football success.
“It gives the Saudi authorities a chance to share their name, their branding and positive messages.” over their country over to make known all over the world world”, said Felix Jakens, head of British campaigns for human rights group Amnesty International.
It’s a well-known script. Manchester City is now owned by the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi family and Paris Saint Germain by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, to name a few. The elite of football increasingly dominated by distant regimes with bottomless pockets.
But the Saudi-Newcastle acquisition has led to it international indignation on another level.
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“This is a country that out some of the worst, systematic human rights violations against its own population – and the situation is getting worse, not better,” said Jakens.
The Saudi Ministry of Media did not respond to a request for comment over his human rights record and the accusations of sports washing.
The face of the $400 million deal is a British businesswoman, Amanda Staveley of PCP Capital Partners. Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Public Investment Fund Owns 80 percent of the team.
the consortium says the fund is independent of the Saudi government. the premier league says it has received “legally binding guarantees” that this is the case. Many experts disagree, pointing out: out that the fund board is composed of Saudi Arabia government ministers and its chairman is MBS itself.
The Crown Prince has tried to revising the image of the kingdom not be seen as an exporter of Islamic radicalism into a modern powerhouse instead driven by technology, tourism, entertainment, and sports. Accompanying social reforms mean women may now drive and movie theaters are open for the first time in 35 years.
The motivation of MBS is: one of pure survival. He knows that Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth won’t last forever, said David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College in London.
“There is an existential necessity for colossal change — fiddling with the edges won’t cut it,” said Roberts. “This is the fire under MBS. He wants to rethink every element of the state.”
This promised transformation is captivated international commentators. But that story turned sour in 2018 when Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who wrote for The Washington Post, was murdered by a Saudi hit team. the CIA says that MBS is most likely the killing, which he denies.
There has also been international aversion to Saudi Arabia role in the war in Yemen. United Nations investigators until recently investigated allegations that the kingdom, as well as the Iran-backed Houthi rebels it is fighting, may have committed war crimes.
Human rights violations and possible war crimes don’t seem to bother many Newcastle fans, with more than 97 percent supporting the takeover, according to an investigation by the clubTrust’s supporters last year.
Football is treated as a quasi-religion in Newcastle, with fans suffering for decades of disappointment, their last important trophy coming in 1955.
But United’s large, devoted fan base also meant the club was considered a sleeping giant, ripe for investment. The takeover will reverberate far beyond the city borders, giving Riyadh a foothold in the world’s most lucrative football league, with an average global public of about 3 million per game.
A lot of fans are just happy to have the . to see back of their previous owner, the highly unpopular British retail magnate Mike Ashley. But they have also welcomed their new investors with little effort.
Public outside the stage last week chanted: “We are Saudis, we do what we” want”, while supporters on social media changed their avatars to the face of MBS.
The fans “are not insensitive”, said one contributor on True Faith, a podcast for Newcastle United fans. “They don’t say, ‘I don’t care about human rights’, but… in the context of this, it’s not that important for an everyday football supporter and they have zero check over the.”
Some have become hostile to the media, met the question of why Newcastle seems to be facing more more critical than the American of British governments die sold weapons to Saudi Arabia.
They point to the growing list of sports teams financed by foreign petrobilions: if they can do it, why can’t we?
“We’re Under” attacksaid another contributor to the True Faith podcast. “We do not care. We’re all buzzing.”
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