Arts, culture & society | Asia, The World

15 June 2020

Whatever Mohammed bin Salman’s motives in buying Newcastle United are, excitable fans are handing him legitimacy, and the deal shows the need for further study into states ‘sport-washing’ their reputations, Simon Chadwick writes.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the principal focus for sport has been upon ensuring the survival of teams, competitions, and events. As countries have locked down, revenues from ticket sales and television rights have dried up, putting many sports organisations at risk of financial ruin.

Whilst many have looked ahead with a sense of dread, there has been one English football club that has not. For much of the last three months, the Premier League’s Newcastle United has apparently been on the cusp of a big money sale to oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

The rumoured deal is estimated to be worth in the region of £300 million, a sum that has had Newcastle fans aghast in anticipation of big-name player signings, and the club’s sellers relieved to be disposing of a troublesome asset. However, others with a stake in the deal have been considerably less upbeat about the prospect of it happening.

The Premier League itself has been grappling with a conundrum. It seems stranded between approving a deal that didn’t immediately appear to breach any of its rules, whilst at the same time confronting the prospect of sanctioning a transaction involving a country that has recently been accused of pirating its content.

At the same time, many critics of the prospective takeover have raised concerns about Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, its treatment of women, and the war it has waged in Yemen. Hatice Cengiz, fiancé of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has even written personally to the Premier League asking it to stop Riyadh’s purchase of the Newcastle club.

Against this backdrop, there have been widespread claims that Saudi Arabia’s government is only buying the club to help cleanse the country’s tarnished image, a practice commonly referred to as ‘sports-washing’. This is commonly conceived of as being the attempt by a country to divert attention away from crimes and misdemeanours.

However, sports-washing somehow seems to be an unsatisfactory label given the attention the proposed United deal has generated. Rather than turning attention away from the country, recent developments have instead shone an intense light on its controversial activities.

Indeed, given the near-total absence of football from television screens and mobile devices during lockdown, the case for stopping the Saudi deal for Newcastle has been given considerable oxygen.

Some people have even suggested that the government in Riyadh has been taken aback by the voracity of criticism the proposed takeover has generated. If the Public Investment Fund’s intention was to artificially create a rosy glow around Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United, then it has had the opposite effect.

Past studies of sports-washing unfortunately yield no published scientific work on the subject, which suggests a significant opportunity for researchers to explore what is a relatively new and under-explored phenomenon.

As a benchmark for possible studies of sports-washing, there is a considerable body of work examining ‘greenwashing’, which is when a company creates a false impression of how environmentally friendly its activities or products are.

One study in particular appears to be of some relevance for sport. The authors make a series of pertinent observations, notably that different stakeholders take varying views of whether activities can or should be labelled ‘washing’.

This is important, because it indicates that like those who are accused of greenwashing, those who seem like they are engaging in sports-washing are not always actually doing so.

Some cases are in fact washing, which the authors would refer to as ‘genuine’ cases. In other instances, the ‘potential’ for sports-washing might be evident, but there could also be situations where there is no sports-washing taking place.

Assuming that a country – or an organisation – is genuinely engaged in the practice, this raises a few questions.

Why have they chosen to engage in washing, and what is being washed? Why has sport been selected rather than another medium of transmission? Who are their target audiences? How does the process of washing work, and as the perpetrator of sport-washing, how do a country’s officials know when they’ve achieved what they set out to do?

What has been a notable feature of the prolonged Saudi Arabian pursuit of Newcastle United is the role that fans have played in the process. Whatever the Public Investment Fund’s motives, fans have given them legitimacy – be they political, socio-cultural, or otherwise.

This has been most obvious on social media, where some Newcastle fans have started using photographs of Mohammed Bin Salman in their biographies on Twitter, whilst others have used words and images to accentuate their – and the club’s – associations with Saudi Arabia.

Certain groups of fans though, have been more circumspect in their appraisal of what the proposed acquisition might mean for the club. Indeed, several fan groups have explained that they will seek to use football as a means through to exert pressure on government in Riyadh, with a view to helping enforce the perceived changes needed in the country.

On the issue, the Newcastle fan base seems to have been split in four ways: active legitimisers – those exhibiting strong and clear support for Saudi Arabia and its rulers; indifferent legitimisers – those who don’t seem to care where the money is coming from or what it means, so long as their club wins; resistant legitimisers – those who are mindful of and often question the motives of their club’s new owners; and ignorant legitimisers – those who either know nothing of or do not care about the issues being raised by the acquisition of their club.

Sports-washing is not, however, just a Saudi Arabian and Newcastle United issue alone, there have been many other potential examples. The Abu Dhabi government’s purchase of Manchester City is another, whilst the staging of prize boxing bouts – such as that involving Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Junior in Riyadh – has also been labelled as being an attempt at washing, and maybe this is true, but maybe not.

What is certain though, is that without more sophisticated analyses and nuanced debate, rather lazy labelling will no doubt continue, and those countries that do engage in using sport-washing will be more likely to get away with it.

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