Is the argument black and white – or grey?

Photo from wikimedia commons

Well, actually, I DO want Newcastle United to be bought by a regime that allegedly tortures dissidents; has forms of punishment which, to our eyes, are barbaric; and treats women as second-class citizens. At this moment it’s not looking likely, as the attempt by a consortium primarily financed by a Saudi Arabian fund to buy Newcastle United has apparently floundered. It turns out that this is not for any of these moral reasons but is because the sale creates a commercial problem for the relevant football authority, the Premier League. This decision has left local football supporters in despair because their hopes had been raised that the current owner would be ‘on his bike’, and the new owners would plough billions of pounds into the club. On the other hand, the decision has been welcomed by those whose opposition is based on political grounds, and by those who have no interest in football and cannot see beyond the regime’s behaviour. 

Why on earth do I, a right-thinking concerned liberal, want it to happen? To explain this requires a realisation that there are a number of sides to this story. Leaving aside for the moment both the fans’ view and the benefits to the area, to which I will return, the two issues which generate the most publicity are human rights, and the commercial and political rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (in which Newcastle United is just a pawn). It’s the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia which are causing the dilemma for football supporters, and the proxy war is irrelevant as it’s a dispute between two countries based on non-football issues. It is anything but irrelevant for the Premier League, however, because an organisation based in Saudi Arabia is reportedly pirating the television broadcasting rights for which Qatar is paying an eye-watering amount .  

In this country, and especially in our area, football has always had a massive following and Newcastle drew crowds approaching 70,000 people in the 1930s. This was before the Premier League had a world-wide television audience of millions (with broadcasting rights worth over a billion pounds every year) and the clubs became vehicles for publicity overseas as well as at home. Money currently underpinning the Premier League comes not only from Middle and Far Eastern countries but also from Russia and America, and from foreign betting companies, and the principle of allowing people with questionable backgrounds to buy English clubs is already established.  However, this doesn’t make it acceptable. The underlying question is still whether one should accept support from people who behave in a way that you disapprove.  

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but the choice here is which is the lesser of two evils. This moral issue comes down to the age-old question of whether the end justifies the means, and there isn’t a universal answer to this question. The human rights record of Saudi Arabia is roundly criticised, in this and other countries, but does the end (the benefit to us) justify the means (taking money from their regime)? When we consider the British government, the politicians’ answer is clear – they don’t approve of the Saudi human rights record but they do approve of the money they receive by selling weapons to them. They justify this in economic terms by pointing to the jobs involved in the manufacture of the weapons, but the story doesn’t end there because the political value to the country of the arms trade is a benefit additional to the money the trade brings in. Like the sale of arms, the sale of the football club would have associated side-effects, and these need to be included when considering the costs and benefits of the deal.

The offer to buy Newcastle United did not come from the Saudi investment fund alone, it came from a consortium (of which they were the major players). This consortium included the Reuben Brothers who have already invested significantly in the area by buying the racetrack in Gosforth, along with property in the city itself. Reportedly, Saudi investment will not end with the football club but will extend to projects that will benefit local people. The model for this is the regeneration of neglected areas in Manchester by the owners of Manchester City. Although the United Emirates get publicity from the footballing success of Manchester City – as it turns out not all of it favourable –  it is the work in the community that provides them with the positive public relations. It’s to be expected that, in the same way, it’s not just the football club that will gain if the sale to Saudi Arabia goes ahead, the North East as a whole will feel the effect.

Newcastle, like almost all of the big cities in Britain, benefited on the back of trade with the rest of the world, which was dependent upon slave labour. Over the last few months our countries’ history has been challenged, and the reputations of those who benefitted at the time from slavery re-examined. The morality here is clear; in simple terms one man made money by controlling another in a way that we now find unacceptable. Can this argument be applied now, given that we disapprove of certain aspects of Saudi society? Not in my view: disapproval is not in itself a good enough reason to reject the sale. There has to be a direct link between what it is we disapprove of and the purchase of the club. The Chinese government’s crackdown on civil rights doesn’t stop people from buying smart phones made in China – presumably because there is not an obvious direct link in the public’s eye between the two. In linking the moral issue of human rights to the purchase of the football club one question that needs to be answered is whether or not the money that is used to pay for the purchase has been made on the back of human rights violations. I can’t give a definitive answer to this, but I thought that essentially the Saudi billions were made because they had huge oil deposits, and not because they made the money by enslaving people.   

Turning back now to the issue of the regeneration of the area, which most commentators accept will not happen without investment from non-governmental sources. To put governmental interest in putting finance into our area into context, how much of the main A1 between Newcastle and Edinburgh is single carriageway? How many lorries coming from Ireland along the A69 between Carlisle and Newcastle get stuck behind a farmer driving his tractor because the road is single carriageway? Would this be acceptable on the road between London and Brighton, for example?  I think not. The UK government talks about trying to rebalance the disparity between the south and the north, but if HS2 is anything to go by, the ‘north’ finishes at Manchester. What about Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen – never mind Newcastle? As an Englishman I’d vote for Scottish independence, but I digress. We live in an area where there are a significant number of people who are struggling through no fault of their own.  The need for charity food banks illustrates this, and the sale of the football club promises to bring money into the area for its regeneration – which, in all likelihood, will not happen otherwise. 

Are the fans important in this? In my lifetime the club has only won one first-rate prize, the FA Cup in 1955 when I was still in my pram. The region saw enormous economic benefits when another team from the North East won the Cup some years ago, and with so many people viewing the football club as the ‘heart’ of Newcastle any improvement in the team’s fortunes will benefit the community as a whole.  We saw this so clearly in 1992 when Kevin Keegan first became our manager. The club was in danger of descending into the third tier of league football (where that other North East team currently languish) but escaped that fate by the skin of their collective teeth. The arrival of Keegan brought hope to the fans, and he delivered. The next season we were promoted as champions. Although the club missed out on winning the Premiership, during the next five years the club – and the city – were revived. Whilst one can admire Keegan’s footballing record, what was more important, to my mind, was the fact that he gave us our pride back. Top class players were purchased, and ‘King Kev’ made Newcastle the most attractive team in the Premiership, gaining them the nickname amongst supporters of other clubs of ‘everyone’s favourite second team’.  From being a laughing stock, with dwindling crowds, the club became a credit to the city (which I recall seeing described at the time as the ‘second-best party city in the world’ behind Rio).  Happy days.

That was some 25 years ago (doesn’t time fly!) and it has been downhill ever since. Whereas at that time every single season ticket was taken, these days many disgruntled fans are not bothering to renew them. The current owner seems to have no ambition to win anything, and if that is the case where is the incentive for the fans to attend games? It used to be the case that as soon as you were old enough your Dad took you to the match, but not any more. The long-term cost to the club of the present owner’s stewardship is the loss of the youngsters who should be the paying supporters of the future.  Hardly anyone under the age of thirty will have strong memories of the Keegan era, their memories will be of a slow decline with the occasional relegation. The sale of the club to the Saudi consortium would change this at a stroke – once again the fans could have real optimism, and I could hope that the club will win something worth winning whilst I can still appreciate it!

Perhaps the question of whether the end justifies the means has to be asked not in the context of the benefit to the football club, but in the benefits it will bring to the whole region. If you were to ask anyone who works for BAE Systems, for any of the companies that supply them, or for any of the businesses that depend upon the employees and their families what they think about arms sales to Saudi Arabia I have little doubt that answers would be different from those you’d get if you asked the question to the public in Surrey. You might even get a different answer from me, because the moral issues of the arms sales go well beyond the human rights issues.  Weapons provide the regime with the means to kill people it doesn’t like, and the moral arguments are very different from those around the public relations exercise of buying a football club. However, would I be acting like those people with no interest in football, simply taking the moral high ground without considering all of the costs and benefits ?

I’ve described the purchase of the club as a public relations exercise as there seems little doubt that one of the factors underlying the Saudi Arabian acquisition is a desire to improve their profile in the West. This has been described as ‘sportswashing’ and it’s not limited to Saudi Arabia.  One view of the purchase is that it is akin to the movement of a pawn in the chess game that is the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both regimes have questionable behaviours, and both want to improve their image with a worldwide audience.  Qatar have bought the rights to show Premier League football, along with the rights to show a number of other leagues worldwide, and Saudi Arabia now want to buy a magnificent football club.  As an aside, the irony of the Premier League taking millions of pounds for television rights from a country with human rights abuses comparable to those to be found in Saudi Arabia seems to have slipped under the radar. It certainly looks to me that ‘sportswashing’ by Qatar is acceptable to the Premier League and to all of the top clubs which benefit from their money, but it is not acceptable if just our club benefits!

Yes, I’m in favour of the sale.  If the reason underlying the purchase of the club is, indeed, the proxy war between the two countries, should we refuse the benefits that arise from it? Saudi Arabia will generate the goodwill by financially supporting an area neglected by our government. The benefits to the area are not being paid for by others being disadvantaged.  The costs are being met by Saudi banks, not the Saudi people. The sale of the football club doesn’t promote terrorism, it’s not supporting slavery, it’s not propping up a crooked Head of State and it’s not laundering drugs money.  You never know, the success of a female Newcastle United team might even benefit women in Saudi Arabia.

In the long term the success of the football club will promote the city around the world.  You’re not in favour?  Nose, face, spite, cut off.

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