Originally published by The Independent on May 21, 2020.
The Premier League is the most-watched sports league in the world, with a cumulative global audience of 3.2 billion people. Some of its teams, like Manchester United, have a global following that accounts for roughly 14% of the world’s population alone. So why would Saudi Arabia’s powerful sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) — chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) — be interested in Newcastle United, a team with few financial incentives?
Part of the answer might lie on a soft power, high-dollar tactic deemed “sportswashing,” a term used to describe the practice of dictatorial regimes hosting major sporting events or investing in teams to improve their image internationally.
The term sportswashing may have been coined recently, but its central idea is far from new. Three years before the start of World War II, Nazi Germany hosted the Berlin Olympics to portray an image of openness and distract attention from its repressive measures. In 1978, Argentina’s military dictatorship hosted the World Cup with junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla presiding over the opening ceremony, while drugged “subversives” were regularly flown out of Buenos Aires and thrown from planes alive into the South Atlantic. In 1980, after decades of economic stagnation, crumbling social policies, and heightened tensions with the West due to the recent invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union hosted a showpiece Olympics to display its grandeur to the world.
Saudi Arabia is following a modern version of that blueprint to a T.
In 2016, the Crown Prince launched “Saudi Vision 2030,” an ambitious initiative that seeks to move Saudi Arabia beyond its heavy oil dependence, by building a more diversified economy. Importantly, the plan also seeks to promote a softer and more moderate image of the kingdom through global engagement, cosmetic social reforms, and, interestingly, sport and entertainment events. MBS next ordered Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority to set up a Sports Development Fund to advance sports activity in the kingdom.
Yet, despite broad, initially positive views of the Crown Prince’s plan for Saudi Arabia, that outlook was shattered suddenly, with the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Khashoggi’s death reminded the world that the kingdom is ruled by a ruthless absolute monarchy, in which there is no independent judiciary, independent media, vibrant civil society, or plurality of political parties, and where citizens have no freedom of thought, expression, religion, or association.
Since then, the Crown Prince has scrambled to salvage the reformer image he had initially portrayed to the world, deploying vast resources to deflect global outrage and rebrand himself and, inextricably, Saudi Arabia. Over the last two years, the kingdom has signed a 10-year partnership with the WWE for multiple shows per year, hosted a heavyweight world title boxing rematch, and organised its first-ever PGA European Tour — all to the delight of millions of fans around the world. And the partnerships, investments, and takeovers keep coming: in April, a Securities and Exchange Commission filing revealed that PIF had just become the third-largest investor in the influential entertainment conglomerate Live Nation.
Rather than putting themselves in league with dictators through financial dealings, sports teams and organisations should use their influence whenever possible to call attention to appalling acts of barbarity. Stonings, public beheadings, crucifixions, and relentless persecution against members of underrepresented communities are all commonplace in Saudi Arabia, and should not be tolerated in the 21st century. To tolerate, is to pardon, which is to embolden.
The Premier League actually has a Fit and Proper Person Test, with the purported goal of upholding the “reputation” of the sport by weeding out dishonest individuals from becoming managers or owners of teams within the league. How is it that being one of the globe’s worst violators of basic individual rights is not considered a disqualifying offence? Such tests are futile if they function only as a solvency evaluation, through which dictatorships like Saudi Arabia are effortlessly waved. Where is the incentive for an autocrat like MBS to change his behaviour if the Newcastle takeover gets rubber-stamped despite the valid criticism it has sparked?
This should not be about keeping politics out of sport. Principles should be reflected at the core of every transaction — whether in politics or sport.
International sport may have evolved into a business in which questions of morality are given little weight, but that shouldn’t mean that teams and leagues should become pawns of tyrants. Many of the principles that guide the Premier League’s admirable work with its Charitable Fund, for instance, should also inform decisions by its owners to step up and become respected allies to human rights causes.
It could be argued that engaging with authoritarian regimes might foster in them some level of appreciation for the institutions of democracy and respect for human rights within their countries. But, unfortunately, so far history suggests that no amount of business dealings — or sportswashing — will promote change or wipe the Saudi regime’s unnerving record clean. Surely, a regime that has no qualms about its own record, should not be considered a respectable business partner. Thankfully, some companies have begun to realise the negative implications of maintaining ties to people who order the dismemberment of journalists, even returning multi-million dollar investments.
Whataboutism is also a poor attempt to dismiss the current scrutiny of sportswashing and the fact that its prevalence can be corrected. Without a doubt, this issue is not isolated to a single sport or industry, and advocating for an end to deals with dictatorships should not be construed as an indictment of fans. Owners know that allegiance in sport is very powerful, and most well-meaning fans who have been following a team for decades and even through generations, might feel they have little recourse but to accept the whitewashing of crimes.
Authoritarian regimes have been clever to recognise these deep emotional ties, and are exploiting those sentiments to their advantage. But fans should not assume that they can’t move the needle in the right direction. Rather than accept or acquiesce to deals that advance a regime’s agenda, fans have the numbers and power to denounce this practice both in and outside the stadium. This wouldn’t be unprecedented, either — Bayern Munich fans have been criticising their club’s sponsorship deals with Qatar since at least 2011.
If the Newcastle deal goes through, the Premier League will have yet again lent its prestige and clout to help whitewash the actions of individuals who respond to freedom of expression and thought with murder. In life, as in business, most meaningful decisions entail trade-offs. But in this transaction, the morals being traded for the sake of Saudi investment, might ultimately prove to be too valuable to lose — principles should come before principal.
Roberto González is a senior legal associate and Michelle Gulino is the international legal associate at the Human Rights Foundation.