Newcastle United and Saudi Arabia: A Complex Tapestry of Allegiance and Influence
The Crossroads of Culture, Commercialism and Controversy
It’s impossible to deny the transformational shift at St James’ Park since Newcastle United’s takeover by the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). But with transformation comes controversy, intrigue, and multi-layered allegiances. The Athletic offers a profound dive into this new chapter, highlighting the nuances often missed in headline news.
Saudi Supporters and Shifting Allegiances
Ask two Saudi supporters outside St James’ Park which Premier League team they support, and you’ll get a clear answer: “Newcastle United.” Abdulrahman and Mahmoud, who once cheered for Arsenal, epitomise this shift. The Athletic poignantly captures their change of heart: a direct result of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle. As they point out, “support for the club is growing rapidly in their home country”.
Newcastle’s Commercial Ambitions
As per The Athletic’s report, Newcastle aims to become the best-supported overseas club in Saudi Arabia. The strategy isn’t just about football; it’s commercial. The decision to host Saudi Arabia’s men’s national team for two friendlies aligns perfectly with this goal. However, Premier League clubs, seemingly out of competitive fears more than moral ones, have rushed to erect barriers to sudden Saudi capital inflows.
Questioning Morality Over Money
There’s an undeniable murkiness to Newcastle’s newfound fortunes. The Athletic brings to light the Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, including the well-documented issues like the oppressive laws against minorities and curtailment of freedom of speech. The fact that Saudi Arabia trained at South Shields FC, a region historically home to a large Yemeni community, stands out as a bitter irony, given Saudi’s involvement in Yemeni conflicts.
The Athletic’s exclusive conversation with Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister Loujain faced severe penalties for her activism in Saudi, is particularly harrowing. Speaking from the shadows of St James’ Park’s towering stands, Lina implores fans to “not underestimate the power they have”, emphasizing how the Saudi government is deeply concerned with its global image.
A Night of Mixed Emotions
The described atmosphere on the evening of the friendly match between Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica is of stark contrasts. The Athletic paints a scene where protests are minimal, fans come together for the love of the game, and Saudi diaspora members reconnect. Yet, there’s an underlying tension, a sense of discomfort.
The commercial intent of Newcastle is evident. Supporters, strategically placed in the East Stand for maximum visibility on TV broadcasts to Saudi Arabia, are surrounded by advertisements prompting them to follow the club’s Arabic Twitter account and more.
Beyond the Game: The Larger Picture
The Athletic’s recount of the match day atmosphere serves as a metaphor for Newcastle’s current position—caught between sporting aspirations, commercial interests, and moral conundrums. The broader implications stretch beyond football. To some, the game was a “billboard”, to others a “protest”, or an opportunity for the Saudi diaspora to reunite.
As the piece beautifully concludes, sometimes things aren’t just black and white; they can be green, a shade symbolising both the colours of Newcastle’s away kit and the complexities of their ties with Saudi Arabia.
Newcastle’s journey since the PIF takeover is intricate, filled with both hope and controversy. While commercial ambitions are clear, the moral implications can’t be ignored. The Athletic’s insights provide a layered understanding, encouraging fans and observers alike to view the situation in all its complexities.