By Kevan Barber, Associate Insight & Creative Director
First things first, I support Newcastle United. Now, with that out of the way, here’s an open take not at all influenced by the article’s opening sentence. If anything, it’s helped me be across what’s a complex topic.
Saudi Arabia’s firmly arrived on the sporting scene – from its PIF purchasing Newcastle United, to almost overnight taking over golf through its LIV Golf tournament merging with the iconic PGA Tour, and plenty in between – it’s been reported as a $6bn spend on ‘sportswashing’ by The Guardian.
However, unlike when horse racing has been used to give a human face to a UAE leader who reportedly kidnapped his own daughter, or when Chelsea was owned by an oligarch well-known to be in with Putin, the backlash has been fierce.
The reasons for this backlash are well documented, and of course are as, or in some cases more serious, than the aforementioned issues around Russian and UAE sporting involvement. The question is, has sportswashing helped the Saudi Arabian state in its attempts to appear more human?
Media will show photos of Newcastle fans parading around in thobes or waving Saudi flags. It appears the Saudi state has the Geordies on board, has Newcastle become a Saudi outpost? Well, no it hasn’t. Football fans are not the indicator of sympathy towards any state, fans dressing up is there to wind up the media and rival fans, and they do it very well.
And the humanisation of the Saudi state is far from reality – the sums of money being pushed towards players willing to make the move to Saudi Arabia’s own league make the country seem crude, beyond reality and frankly up to no good.
With that in mind, what has been achieved for Saudi Arabia and its reputation through blatant sportswashing? Seemingly about as much as the 2022 World Cup achieved for Qatar’s reputation.
From Jamal Khashoggi’s murder to the war in Yemen, through to the executions within its own borders, Saudi Arabia isn’t a country you’d want influencing your sports, your media, your politics, your businesses or your wider economy (though it’s doing them all, not just sport). And whilst a bit was known about the darker side of Saudi Arabia, never has it been in the news so much, or debated so much.
News coverage on the country is up, sports podcasts feel compelled to speak about human rights, and the topic is even debated over pints at The Strawberry, in the shadow of St James’ Park and over 3,200 miles from Riyadh.
Coming back to the title of this blog then, is Saudi Arabia’s assault on sport that bad? It’s not good. But here comes the more contentious take: there are bigger issues for the media and those in power to be commenting on.
Peter Hutton, who admittedly is paid by the Saudi state in his role on the board of the Saudi Premier League, mentioned the wider impact on a recent BBC podcast. 50,000 girls playing football, 1,000 female coaches and wider societal changes with regard to gender. Football, and the focus it has brought, has undoubtedly brought about that impact.
The biggest issue is the fact Saudi Arabia is provided arms by the British government later dropped on Yemen. However, points-scoring parliamentarians would rather pull in the Premier League’s CEO to a select committee following the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United than talk about their own misgivings. Who’s sportswashing now?