What the Saudi takeover at Newcastle has to say to the church

Newcastle United have just agreed to a take-over deal that is backed with money, predominantly, from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF). The Times report (paywall):

A Saudi Arabian-backed takeover of Newcastle United is expected to be announced today after the Gulf state lifted its four-year ban on the Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports.

The £300 million takeover, with Premier League approval, would almost certainly provoke a furious reaction from human-rights groups.

The point of concern is to do with sportswashing. This is the practice of using sport – whether hosting events, sponsorships or owning clubs – to improve reputations. This has become a particularly prominent issue as countries and organisations with serious questions hanging over them because of human rights abuses or questionable practices are seeking to manage their reputation through use of wealth in sport.

In the case of the Newcastle takeover, whilst the minority British shareholders will be the day to day operators of the club, 80% ownership belongs to the Saudi PIF which is the country’s sovereign wealth fund overseen by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince. The Times state, ‘The Premier League questioned whether the PIF was de facto the Saudi state when it came to passing the owners’ and directors’ test. Majid al-Qasabi, the Saudi media minister, also sits on the PIF board’. The suspicion is that the Saudi Arabians are pumping in money – much like the the Abu Dhabi and Qatari ownership of Manchester City and PSG respectively – as a means of overcoming their woeful human rights record.

But if you ask the average Newcastle fan, you won’t be hearing too many complaints. The club have 93.8 per cent of the club’s supporters polled over the weekend by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust were in favour of the takeover. The reason for this is straightforward enough, as Martin Hardy writes here:

If there will always be an accusation of “sportswashing” (using sport investment to lend legitimacy to a regime with a questionable human rights record) against a sovereign state taking control of a football club — see Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City — then there had been Ashley’s washing away of hope and ambition to contend with, year after year in the North East. Ashley has been in charge of 13 Premier League campaigns and in seven of those the club have been in the bottom five by this stage of the season.

Newcastle have lost thousands of supporters since he bought the club from Sir John Hall and Freddy Shepherd in 2007 for £134 million — see last year’s need to give away 10,000 free season tickets to fill St James’ Park. It could be argued that these fans would have been happy with anyone after Ashley, piracy and dubious human rights record included, although more than 6 per cent of that vote does show a pocket of doubt.

In the 14 years under Mike Ashley’s reign, Newcastle have been relegated twice and found themselves fighting relegation pretty much every other season. Hardy goes on:

Newcastle’s squad, like their ground, has been unloved by Ashley and the managing director, Lee Charnley, and their lawyer Justin Barnes. Of the 14 players involved in what may have been the last game on Ashley’s watch, a defeat away to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, six were with the club when they were promoted from the Championship in 2017.

Newcastle had to borrow money to buy Joe Willock in the summer for £20 million. Their goalscorer in a defeat at Wolves on Saturday that leaves them winless after eight games and third bottom of the Premier League table was Jeff Hendrick, signed on a free transfer after being released by Burnley in 2020.

In essence, then, Newcastle fans have found themselves at a low ebb and have long called for the removal of Mike Ashley. Now they have their wish, they have replaced him with an absolute monarch, derided as a totalitarian dictatorship presided over by a murderous despot. But Newcastle fans, like most football fans, will simply see the decline reversed by unparalleled investment and think no more about it, as the approval ratings suggest and as happened when similar happened in Man City. As hope dwindled, and with such investment being offered, the human rights concerns seem to fade into the background.

I think there is something to be learnt here in the church. It can be very tempting to sign up to work with all sorts of people and organisations when money and resources are on the line. And, truth be told, if you are in a church that has struggled for those things, the temptation to jump into bed with things that make us extremely uncomfortable grows. When it feels like no other help is coming, and there is some significant coin or people resource being dangled in your direction, it can be very tempting to either play down certain convictions or link up with people or organisations who, under other circumstances, you wouldn’t choose to work.

Whilst we may want to throw stones about that, I think we need to ask seriously why people end up here. Why is it that people are tempted to take from, or sign up with, uncomfortable bedfellows? Ultimately, it is because people with whom we would feel considerably more comfortable don’t seem ready and willing to help. It is all very well looking across and getting sniffy about where people are seeking support, but if we haven’t lifted a finger to help them, can we really be that surprised? When the hope of staying as you are is going, and the people you would rather link up with don’t seem to be chomping at the bit to help, is it any wonder that people throw their lot in with less natural partners?

I am not convinced the faithful choice is to sign up to things that your convictions can’t bear. You can gain all the resources in the world, but if you lose your own soul in the process, what value has there been? Jesus says something to that effect himself. But those of us watching on asking questions about those who might compromise this way must ask ourselves, have we done anything to help them make a more faithful choice? Have we offered help to ensure that such choices aren’t made out of desperation? There is nothing wrong with calling people to think carefully about their partnerships, but it is rank hypocrisy to question them when you know full well that they have come about because of needs that we, with our sound doctrine and right theology, have simply refused to meet. As John says, ‘If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him — how does God’s love reside in him?Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth’ (1 John 3:17f).