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Saudi Arabia Is Buying Newcastle Because That’s How Things Work Now

It’s been a typically circuitous route, but all reports say Mike Ashley’s latest deal to sell Newcastle United has all but crossed the finish line. As Sky Sports reports, the contracts have been drawn and signed, the deposit has been deposited, the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. All that’s keeping PCP Capital Partners from acquiring the club from Ashley is the Premier League subjecting the new ownership group to its acquiescent owners’ and directors’ test. That means we’re probably mere days away from Newcastle going from an infamously mismanaged club, with no realistic hopes of success, owned by a blundering idiot, to being impossibly rich, having better future prospects than ever before, owned by murderers.

If, when you see the name “PCP Capital Partners,” you don’t immediately get the vibe that this thing is being run by murderers, that’s by design. PCP Capital Partners is the clean face behind which sits the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which itself sits directly at the feet of Mohammad bin Salman and the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations are too numerous and long-standing for any recounting in a soccer article to do justice, but suffice it to say this is a murderous, terrorist-supporting regime with a propensity for evil few countries can match. Put another way, if there were an International Cup of Evil akin to the Champions League, Saudi Arabia would be a lock to qualify and one of the favorites to lift it—by analogy, a team much bigger and better than Newcastle.

Proof that the purchase is a Saudi operation is right there in the financials. Of the £300 million Ashley has coming to him, PCP Capital Partners—specifically its head, British financier Amanda Staveley—is putting up 10 percent, another 10 percent is coming from British billionaires David and Simon Reuben, with the remaining 80 percent share coming from the Public Investment Fund. Staveley, who has deep ties to several of the oil-rich monarchies that rule over most of the Arabian Peninsula, will run the show, but the real power belongs to the Saudis.

This is fitting in multiple ways. It was Staveley who reportedly cinched the investment during a ritzy party on bin Salman’s yacht in October of 2019, and it will be the culmination of years of work for her to finally convince Ashley to sell her the club. It’s also fitting that the deal will make Staveley the most high-profile woman in the Premier League, since the trumpeting of this feat of corporate feminism her coronation is meant to inspire mirrors the cosmetically feminist but substantively empty reforms bin Salman has implemented in Saudi Arabia as a way to paint his regime as progressive without any of that pesky progress. Saudi Arabia is nothing if not a constant innovator in whitewashing its despotism.

Regardless of Staveley’s status as the face of Newcastle’s soon-to-be-new ownership group, and the likelihood that she will indeed be the one tasked with actually managing of the club, the move is clearly at heart yet another instance of what is commonly referred to as sportswashing. (How you settle on “sportswashing” when “ballwashing” is staring you right in the face, I’ll never know.) Staveley’s friends on the Arabian Peninsula—and she has many, seeing as she’s made money with the heavy hitters of Qatar, the U.A.E., and Saudi Arabia in the past, and even helped orchestrate Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City—have made the concept of sportswashing a staple in sports coverage in recent years, with high-profile purchases of Man City, Paris Saint-Germain, and the 2022 World Cup, among other things.

But noticing sportswashing and dutifully registering your distaste for it is one thing; actually stopping sportswashing from working is something else. The former happens all the time, in well-meaning but futile coverage like what you’re presently reading, and in misguided and trivializing “TITLE TAINTED BY BLOOD MONEY!!!! MY CLUB WOULD NEVER!!!111!” missives you’ll see hurled around the replies of any tweet that mentions the success of Manchester City. The latter—preventing sportswashing from succeeding—is next to impossible.

Countries like Qatar spend billions to buy and fund soccer teams because sportswashing works. Raising your country’s profile and getting it associated with gorgeous athleticism and gaudy success and infinite wealth and luxury is clearly worth the economic cost and the occasional flurries of negative press; otherwise these countries wouldn’t do it. Stick with it long enough and do it well enough, and eventually the fame and success and fun will eclipse the moral concerns while the positive association will remain. Nobody bats an eye at Qatar Airways logos on jerseys anymore, and I haven’t heard anyone say “Chelski” in years. Khaldoon al-Mubarak even had a starring role in Amazon’s documentary series about Manchester City, but it was never mentioned that he is one of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi’s closest advisors and the man who controls the kingdom’s nuclear energy program and $230 billion sovereign wealth fund.

(And the soft power gained from sportswashing can even be used as something verging on hard power. Qatar is currently demonstrating this with their late-stage attempt to torpedo Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle bid, using their sports broadcasting outlet, BeIn Sports.)

Staveley will get that toy she’s pined after for so long, and the new Newcastle very well may wind up with some great players and a beautiful style and maybe even a trophy, and all of it will exist for the sole purpose of giving cover for the Saudi royal family to expand its nefarious sphere of influence. That is depressing and predictable. Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing scheme will likely work and the country’s image will be cleaner and its reach a little further in five years’ time; that too is depressing and predictable. This is what the biggest league in the world’s most popular sport looks like now, and it’s what the globalized, consolidated world economy will increasingly resemble as coronavirus lockdowns and the diversion of relief funds away from working people and small businesses into the bank accounts of the rich and their tiny number of mega-corporations that will grow even faster in the resulting market vacuum; that too is depressing and predictable—so much so that it’s painful to think about it for very long, the mind preferring to wander back to soothing thoughts and images of athletic brilliance embodied by the sports world’s best players and teams.

So enjoy your coming success, Newcastle fans. I don’t know if you really deserve it, but the world certainly does.