10/09/2021, 09.14
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Riyadh buys Newcastle, in challenge to Emirates and Qatar: The global face of football


The Saudi Public Investment Fund, controlled by bin Salman, has bought 80% of the English team. An updated version of the football war to excel in the region. Criticism from Amnesty International and Khashoggi's widow. For the fans, it is the results on the pitch that count. The silence of the politicians who trade arms worth 10 billion with the Wahhabi kingdom.



Riyadh (AsiaNews) - From space exploration to finance, from economics to innovation, hosting major events, the challenge between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha is also being played out on football pitches, giving rise to an updated version of the "war", or diplomacy, of football.

With a Qatari fund the owner of Paris St Germain (France) since 2011 and Manchester City in the hands of the Abu Dhabi United Group (Emirates) since 2008, today it is the turn of Saudi Arabia, which has acquired the majority of Newcastle, the historic English club.

This news is welcomed by the fans, for whom the motto pecunia non olet applies, in the hope of achieving better results than in the recent past (one qualification for European competitions in the last 14 years under the old management).  NGOs and human rights activists are critical of the move, including the wife of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who according to the UN was killed on the orders of the Wahhabi kingdom. 

After lengthy negotiations, which stalled in 2020 partly due to conflicts of interest, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mbs), of which he is president, acquired 80% of the property this week. The remaining shares in Newcastle United will go equally to Amanda Staveley's Pcp Capital Partners and Reuben Brothers. 

The top management of PIF have assured the maximum independence with respect to the State, trying to dispel all the shadows concerning piracy or violations of human rights; however, since the fund is, in fact, in the hands of the number two of the kingdom, it is clear the link with Riyadh and the use - also political - that the Saudis will want to make of this acquisition, which is certainly not based on the economic element.

In fact, unlike the investments in Disney (about 900 million euros), Live Nation and Carnival Cruiselines, the football company recorded losses of 30 million euros last year. 

"They’re using the soft power of football, which has a worldwide appeal, to try and change the narrative about Saudi Arabia,” Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert in Gulf state politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Foreign Policy. “People are talking about the country now for something that isn’t about Yemen, or about Khashoggi, or human rights..'. She also confirms the deep connection between Riyadh and the PIF Fund, which is indeed 'the most significant part of the state, because it is the means used by Mbs to implement his vision and turn it into reality'. 

Judging by the thousands of fans of the team jubilant in the vicinity of the famous St. James' Park (the stadium) or on social media, the goal in this first phase seems to have been achieved. We are only interested in football," 80-year-old Ray Sproul told the Guardian, "because we are ordinary fans, that's all for us.

The main British newspapers made different comments, starting with the Telegraph, which stressed that "neither Qatar nor the Emirates have ever authorised the murder and dismemberment of a journalist". The Guardian defines the Saudi state as a "murderer" and sport as a vehicle for "international image laundering". The Times is more pragmatic, asking why a football team should be subject to moral values when the nation of which it is a part 'trades arms with the Saudis' to the tune of 10 billion euros a year. This is why not even from politics, Labour and Tories, there are no anti-Saudi crusades, but only generic requests for intervention by "independent bodies" in the football world. In short, an elegant way to avoid dealing with the affair. 

There remain some critical voices, such as Amnesty International, which appeals to the Premier League to keep a high level of attention on human rights and not allow football to be used to wash their hands and consciences as in the case of the "Saudi" Newcastle.

Obviously, there has been no response or official comment from the top management of the English football league.

Khashoggi's wife, Hatice Cengiz, has also made a strong protest in the last few hours, saying that she is "disappointed" by this "heartbreaking" news. "What I've been doing since his murder is seeking justice for Jamal every day, every chance that I found or every place I can go and ask more." Looking at the Newcastle supporters, she concludes, it is as if "tIt seems like they [Newcastle fans] don't care about what happened to Jamal, they just care about the financial future. SAt least respect the soul of Jamal, because he paid the really high price for the freedom of speech." 

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