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20 October 2021

The Saudis have promised Newcastle United the world. But what do they want in return?

For all the lavish boasts about potential signings, and investment in club infrastructure and the wider city, we don’t really know what the new owners’ ambitions are.

By Jonathan Liew

From the bowels of St James’s Park a loud and guttural roar went up: a roar of triumph and deliverance and longing. It spread from the Gallowgate on the south side of the stadium to the Leazes End in the north. No goal had been scored. No trophy had been won. The Premier League game against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday 17 October hadn’t even kicked off yet. But here in this hallowed and forsaken place, 50,000 Newcastle United fans were savouring an unfamiliar feeling: feeling.

Over 14 years, as the despised former owner Mike Ashley slowly ground this grand old club into the dirt, Newcastle fans gave up on feeling anything about their club. Even the anger subsided after a while, splintering into ennui and resignation. They still came to watch home games every other Saturday, of course, if only in the hope that they would see a day like this. And so, as their new chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan, the 51-year-old businessman and governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, rose to his feet to greet his public, it acclaimed him – not as the representative of an atrocious regime, but as a liberator who had arrived with a stick of dynamite and blown a hole in the prison walls.

As Saudi flags waved in the crowd, as grown men and children in keffiyehs from Amazon sang “Fuck off Man City, we’re richer than you”, it was tempting to conclude that this, surely, was why Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund had bought into English football: the sort of instant love and fealty that no amount of PR consultancy can harvest; the laundering of a gruesome reputation on live television.

[see also: Amanda Staveley: the football financier who brought Newcastle to the Saudis]

The reality is probably more complex – as is often the case with “sportswashing”, the oft-deployed but poorly understood umbrella term used to describe the various ways in which regimes or individuals associate themselves with elite sport. For one thing, the Newcastle United buyout has invited more coverage and scrutiny of Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record. Before kick-off on 17 October, a poster van circled the stadium bearing a picture of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 (the assassination is believed to have been ordered by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman). Until the takeover, a fair proportion of English football fans would probably never have heard of him.

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To focus on reputation management alone is to ignore the many other reasons why owners buy football clubs. For the Glazer family, who took full control of Manchester United in 2005, it’s a cold business investment – an attempt to sweat the brand value of their asset and maybe fatten it up for an eventual sale. For the royal families of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, who own Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain respectively, it’s about creating something timeless and extraordinary: a model of sophistication and the power to mould the world in your image. By contrast, the prodigious rate at which Roman Abramovich has burned through Chelsea managers over the past 18 years suggests his primary motive is his own entertainment.

What about the Saudis? For all the lavish promises of new signings, and investment in the club’s infrastructure and the wider city, the truth is that we don’t really know, and it’s possible they don’t either. We should perhaps resist the temptation to assume that this is all part of some immaculate master plan. In the immediate aftermath of the takeover, pundits lined up to declare that Newcastle’s ascent to global dominance was only a matter of time. There were airy predictions of an imminent title challenge, Champions League success, the world’s best players and managers forming a procession along the Barrack Road. All this may yet come to pass. But even in these early days, it has proven tough to maintain the facade of competence.

Behind the scenes, tales abound of a club mired in chaos and confusion, of frantic calls to agents and prospective new managers, of an alarming lack of footballing expertise. The bulk of the big decisions are being made by the financier and minority stakeholder Amanda Staveley and her banker husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi, who despite having no previous experience in the game is said to have taken personal charge of recruitment. According to some accounts, he has occasionally been seen at the club’s training ground kicking a football about.

On the pitch, Newcastle remain a shambles and will continue to be such for a while yet. Their meagre squad bears the scars of a decade of underinvestment under Ashley, and their 3-2 defeat by Tottenham on 17 October left them second bottom in the table, with 11 games to play before reinforcements can be sourced in the January transfer window. Their December fixture list is horrendous, with games against Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. Steve Bruce, a coach who had run out of road but was somehow still forlornly pedalling, has now, at last, been sacked. But relegation remains a clear possibility.

Naturally, the history of modern football tells us that if you throw enough money at a problem, it eventually goes away. But on the early evidence, restoring Newcastle to pre-eminence may take longer than many assume. In the meantime, the club’s fans have been promised salvation. They will be the first to notice if they don’t get it.

[see also: Leader: The great British sell-off]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West