Sport and politics have been inseparable for more than 100 years. Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of Newcastle United is just another example that this development is unlikely to be reversed.
This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are the responsibility of the writer.
The £ 305 million worth of trade has little to do with what is often called “the beautiful game”, namely football. The purchase through the Saudi government investment fund is part of a political strategy on the part of the Saudis. The reason behind is threefold:
One reason it is the desire to outdo your neighbors. The use of sporting events to stand out internationally has become an internal race between the states in the region: the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
Another reason is to create a bridgehead to the markets of maritime transport, wind energy and tourism. In addition to the investment fund’s 80 percent stake, the acquiring group includes, among others, the investment company Reuben Brothers. The investors behind the acquisition share an interest in technology related to renewable energy, including wind farms on the east coast of England, near the city of Newcastle.
A third reason is the goal of international recognition. The buying and selling of sporting events has become a valuable currency in the exchange of political images. In this market you have brevet fra Hatice Cengiz to the Premier League to stop the acquisition without bargaining power. Although she is the widow of the journalist critical of the regime Jamal Khashoggi, who in 2018 was assassinated by Saudi agents in Turkey.
Sports wash or soft power?
The term “sports laundry” is often used to describe these trades. He points out that undemocratic countries buy goodwill by facilitating sports festivals. At the same time, an opportunity opens up to hide the problematic aspects of society.
The buying and selling of sporting events has become a valuable currency in the exchange of political images.
But to explain the motives behind this, the concept of “soft power” is more appropriate. It comes from the American political scientist Joseph Nye jr.
In the late 1980s, he discussed the benefits of seeking influence through means other than threats and pressure. The alternative is to attract, lure, and flatter (some would even say manipulate) others in an international competition for positive attention.
In hindsight, we have seen many examples of sporting events being used openly in a political game where the goal is soft power. The bluntness about this has paradoxically led to reactions not necessarily being as strong as human rights organizations in particular would like.
Several countries with major sporting events, such as Azerbaijan or Qatar, initially made few attempts at sports washing. In their eyes, no one else cared what they were doing within the country’s borders.
Political issues had nothing to do with sporting events. Qatar could have escaped the exploitation of migrant workers if a growing outcry from the world community had not forced FIFA to worry.
In return, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have had a lot to say about whether the World Cup can be held every two years instead of every four years, as it is today.
Equally transparent is the Newcastle acquisition. Not forgetting the contribution of the Saudi Investment Fund to Facebook, Disney and other companies with which many have a relationship with consumers.
Much of the fans don’t seem to care either. When the acquisition went public, many fans celebrated the farewell of unpopular financier and former owner Mike Ashley with fireworks and root canals.
In the book Sports diplomacy Since 2018, Stuart Murray writes that the reason is not necessarily agreement that human rights violations can be ignored, but indifference towards a relationship they already see as corrupt.
Investor shades are also well known. Businesswoman Amanda Staveley, who led the acquisition process and now owns 10 percent of Newcastle United, told The Times on October 8 when asked if it was sportswashing:
“Human rights? This is something we take seriously, but our partner is the investment fund, not the Saudi state. This is not sports washing at all. It is a public investment in a fantastic club.”
The place of human rights in sport
It is no longer about mixing sports and politics. The question is rather: what can be done about it?
One answer is that international sports federations, which allocate events and control what can be done with the politicization of sport, must live up to their own values.
The realization of the place of human rights in sport is the first commandment.
Alternatively, they will be held hostage again and again when opportunistic heads of state and investors, and not sport itself, set the tone for what is political on the inside.
A recommendation to the Norwegian Sports Confederation
However, little will change without union members making stronger collective demands on it. It is a challenge in international football.
Many members of FIFA without a particularly democratic mindset have more interest in attending the world football festival than in problematic conversations about freedom of expression and so on. Others want practitioners to get more involved. However, not all professionals agree on the issue.
Nor do Norwegian soccer team players or professional cyclists have a duty to comment on the Qatar World Cup or to criticize those who pay their salaries.
On the other hand, it is time for federations and sports leaders to speak their minds. It is therefore gratifying that a committee of the Norwegian Sports Confederation (Nif) has prepared a strong recommendation on what the federation should stand for in this context.
With the title “Values worth fighting for”, it will be adopted by the Sports Council on October 16 and 17.
Some will say that it is a small step from a small country. But at least it helps better protect both athletes and events from unscrupulous sports leaders and the social unrest that can arise from absenteeism.