On April 24, in response to HRF’s letter to the Premier League regarding the impending purchase of Newcastle United, AP global sports reporter Rob Harris asked Garry Kasparov to expand on his views about foreign investment in sport.
Below is Mr. Kasparov’s response in full–
The letter from the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) to the Premier League chief executive on April 23 came in response to the Premier League’s latest impending deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. HRF has been long troubled by the ongoing trend of the acquisition of football clubs in England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton, Sheffield United, to name a few) and beyond (AS Monaco, Inter Milan, PSG), by business interests directly linked to dictatorships such as Russia, UAE, China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. HRF has consistently condemned the egregious human rights violations of these regimes and their intent to whitewash (“sportswash”) their records with these purchases and to gain influence in the UK and elsewhere.
I am aware that the shallow whataboutism directed at me is an attempt to stir scandal and to deflect from those serious issues, but I have my pride. First, to construe my congratulatory tweet to Pep Guardiola, a personal friend, as condoning or endorsing the club’s ownership is deceitful and absurd. Nor would I ever condemn the players and fans of such teams for the actions or nature of their teams’ ownership. My only wish is that the hallowed Blaydon Races be sung free of the influence and exploitation of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
International chess competitions and my promotion of the game as an ambassador have taken me to many authoritarian nations, including the United Arab Emirates. My attempt in 2014 to wrest the presidency of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) away from a Kremlin stooge obliged me to form a coalition ticket with reform-minded representatives chosen from the 175 voting FIDE member federations. Comparing one such representative of these non-profit organizations – one who provided not one penny to me or my campaign, by the way – and my own potential leadership (had I not failed in my bid) to the purchase of a Premier League team by Saudi Arabia is nonsense. I have dedicated my time as HRF chair in standing with activists and political prisoners from around the world, including from the UAE, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and China.
It is fair to ask why anyone should care who owns a football club as long as they pay the bills. Authoritarian regimes long ago realized the usefulness of these investments in the free world, both for the money-laundering opportunities and for the soft power of political and cultural influence. Ignoring such efforts resulted in the nickname “Londongrad,” as billions of looted Russian cash poured into the city, hollowing out the real estate market and spreading deep and wide into British politics. Putin’s feeling of ownership and impunity also led to murder with deadly toxins in London and Salisbury, either of which could have been a mass tragedy. There are real consequences for deals with the devil, sooner or later. Our goal at HRF is to reduce the influence and power of dictatorships, especially in places like England with strong democratic traditions.
The potential deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United FC involves a regime that has committed a crime unprecedented in its barbarity and brazenness: the killing and actual dismemberment with a bone saw – in a Saudi consulate abroad! – of a U.S. permanent resident and well-known Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. To add insult to injury, MBS is smugly taunting the free world and enjoying complete impunity as he wages an ongoing public relations campaign to whitewash his crimes. The message this sends the world is: “If I can do that to Khashoggi, I can do it to anyone, anywhere.”
Jamal Khashoggi stood for the very ideals that the Premier League and its Chief Executive, Richard Masters, purport to: promoting social good, unity, and fairness. That the leader of a regime would personally order and closely oversee the murder of a United States permanent resident and former advisor to MBS’ father, King Salman, as retaliation for his outspoken advocacy of democracy and democratic principles, is unconscionable and places Saudi Arabia on an unmatched level of barbarism.
Do not be fooled into thinking these unholy alliances work in the other direction by liberalizing the authoritarian regimes via engagement. This fallacy has been refuted countless times and is little more than an excuse to take the money, morality be damned. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has maintained a facade of positive action to improve its abysmal human rights record. Some reforms were implemented to the repressive male guardianship system, but women continue to be severely discriminated against in numerous other areas – in both law and practice – and are unprotected against violence. Such measures, after decades of ruthless repression, cannot be mistaken for the safeguarding of human rights when they are still simultaneously accompanied by the savage actions of which the regime has proven capable. MBS’ actions have made it clear that the Saudi regime is unwilling to compromise on its campaign of whitewashing its crimes.
HRF believes in maintaining the integrity of all international sports, and certainly that of every football club within the Premier League. Allowing such a deal, would only serve to perpetuate Saudi Arabia’s laundry list of crimes and impede justice. That such troubling deals have been made and condoned by the League and its supporters in the past does not preclude it from taking the opportunity now to correct its course and build a reputation as an emblem of both inspiration and aspiration.