The planned takeover of Newcastle United by a consortium controlled by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is raising questions around the world. Human rights groups have condemned this cynical attempt by the kingdom to “sportswash” its human rights abuses. But there’s still nothing to suggest the £300m takeover will be blocked.
Over the past few years, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, commonly known as MBS, has spent a fortune positioning himself to the world as a moderniser. In 2017 he asked for global support in transforming the kingdom into an open society that would empower its citizens and – crucially – attract foreign investment. He has ostensibly introduced some liberal reforms, rescinding the ban on female drivers and restricting the powers of the religious police. He has also spent hundreds of millions building a global public relations machine selling his agenda to the world.
But detention, torture and murder have been the backdrop to this. Among the regime’s abuses have been those committed during the war in Yemen – which have led the UN to make credible allegations of war crimes.
And my fiance, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, became a victim of the regime in October 2018. He was butchered by agents of the Saudi government in its consulate in Istanbul while I waited outside. The government tried to cover up the killing and failed. The CIA and UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings have concluded that the crown prince ordered Jamal’s murder.
The gruesome killing and its aftermath greatly tarnished Bin Salman’s reputation and created a massive embarrassment for the Saudi government. For a few months many world leaders avoided the crown prince and some businesses refused to do business with Saudi Arabia. However, he is now working to salvage his reputation. A network of firms, many based in London, are working round the clock to deflect attention away from human rights abuses committed by the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has hosted boxing matches and a golf event, and its long-term deal with wrestling organisation WWE remains intact. These events are simply window dressing, intended to restore faith in Bin Salman’s rule, not expand actual freedoms to Saudis.
Far from being an enlightened ruler, Bin Salman has shown himself to be a destabilising force in the region. During the coronavirus crisis, while other states have been scrambling to protect their citizens, he has been consolidating power. In March, he arrested 298 government employees, including three senior members of the royal family, under the guise of fighting corruption. Last month, the sovereign wealth fund he chairs bought a $500m (£410m) stake in the US entertainment company Live Nation. And he has worked since the crisis began to take back lost market share through an oil price war.
The failure of the world’s governments to hold Bin Salman to account in recent years has already emboldened him. Now his investment group is poised to take ownership of one of the English Premier League’s most widely supported clubs. Yet the league will violate its own charter if it allows the move to go ahead: this charter prohibits someone to become a club’s director if “he has engaged in conduct outside the United Kingdom that would constitute an offence … if such conduct had taken place in the United Kingdom, whether or not such conduct resulted in a conviction”. I have no doubt that Newcastle United’s fans do not wish their club to be run by the architect of such brutal repression. His is a regime where journalists are tortured, dissidents disappear and reformers are sentenced to death.
Amnesty International has warned that the Premier League could become a patsy of those who want to use the “glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral”. Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of using football “as a PR tool to distract from its abysmal human rights record”. Still, the Premier League has refused to block Bin Salman’s desperate attempt to protect his image.
Sadly, the UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has said the government is unlikely to step in. But it is time for the governments of the west and all responsible national bodies to hold Bin Salman accountable. Their inaction in recent years has given him the belief that he can do whatever he likes without risking repercussions.
Here is a chance for the Premier League to make it plain that criminals and tyrants are not welcome in the most respected football competition in the world. And if it does not take this opportunity, its own reputation will be stained for good. Rest assured that those about to take over Newcastle have blood on their hands.
• Hatice Cengiz was the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi