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Saudi allegations in Black and White? Newcastle’s Takeover, PR and Levelling Up

Photo by Sven Kucinic on Unsplash

Thousands across the Northeast woke from a long nightmare on the 7th of October 2021. The hell endured by the Toon faithful since 2007 under Mike Ashley’s reign had finally come to an end. And what’s more, their beloved club now had access to riches, the scale of which had never been seen before in English football. The enamored joy outside St James’ Park that night was juxtaposed by the outrage expressed on social media. Human rights campaigners and fans of the other 91 football league clubs alike were abhorred by the gall of the Premier League to allow a Saudi-led investment fund to purchase one of English football’s biggest clubs, though the reasoning for their horror may have differed. The PIF has been accused of “sports-washing”; a practice where an individual, organisation, or nation state improves their reputation through the medium of sport. Football is rife with instances of “sports washing”. Gazprom, an energy company backed by the Russian state, sponsors a plethora of teams across Europe, conveniently situated in cities along prospective gas pipelines. Saudi Arabia’s entrance into this arena sees them join a host of other authoritarian states adopting this soft power strategy. Newcastle fans long craved a hero to replace their villainous former owner Mike Ashley, naturally presenting an easy PR win for any prospective successor. This was demonstrated by the scenes outside St James’ Park after the takeover was announced, where hundreds of Newcastle fans congregated together to dress as Sheikhs and wave Saudi flags. For the Geordie faithful, the sheer desperation to enjoy watching their team play and the hypocrisy of many of their critics meant the alleged crimes of the Saudi regime could be overlooked. The role of Amanda Staveley, a British businesswoman, as the face of the deal cannot be discounted too. Meanwhile, sustained engagement with the key stakeholders throughout the process, including supporter’s groups and club legends like Alan Shearer, sharply contrasted Mike Ashley’s approach. These actions stemmed what would have threatened the deal most: opposition from Newcastle fans and figures. The PIF also pledged to invest a great deal into the surrounding area of Newcastle. The city and surrounding region is one of the key targets of the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda and Staveley herself was quoted as saying “We want to see more investment in the north of England, levelling up’s part of the agenda”. Investment in the team and region could be a blessing for the people of Newcastle. It can be argued, however, that the necessity for questionable foreign investment to improve an area that has seen severe economic deprivation should instead be seen as a failure of the government. Regardless of that, the PIF now have an extremely effective vehicle to flex their soft power in a region that is increasingly crucial on the electoral map.

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