A few weeks ago, the purchase of a football club by a new buyer, a quite common event in the sports world, caught the planet’s attention and caused a true tsunami in the media. The Premier League team of Newcastle United Football Club was bought for 354 million euros by Saudi Arabia, with 80% of the funds coming from the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
This type of investment in sports by the Saudi royalty is not the first, and certainly will not be the last: the Saudi sports economy has grown by 174 percent in the last three years, and investments in this domain are an important part of the “Vision 2030” plan carried out by the country. Apart from buying teams, the investments in sports also takes the form of the organization of events in the Kingdom, which can also stimulate the tourism industry. Events such as The Saudi Tour, a cycling competition, or the Riyadh Season Cup, a football tournament (that will host teams such as the Paris Saint-Germain) are viewed by millions of spectators, bring millions of visitors and a positive spotlight on Saudi Arabia.
Many other Gulf countries invest in the sports domain, with very well-known cases such as the United Arab Emirates owning Manchester City, or Qatar owning Paris Saint-Germain.
It is also the case of Bahrain, a small country that has been able to get its name out internationally by linking it to various sports teams. Just like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has a special interest in football teams that get plenty of public affection and attention. At the end of 2019, Bahrain purchased Córdoba Club de Fútbol, a Spanish second division club through a company called “Infinity Capital”, that actually belongs to the ruling elites. The money used, however, comes from public financing, meaning straight from the budget of the Bahraini state. In 2020, Bahrain also invested in the Paris Football Club, the other club from Paris, for a value of 5 million euros, making the Bahraini authorities the owners of 20% of the club, and therefore, also becoming an official partner and having the name of the country associated with Paris. The fact that Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world and that France is the last winner of the Football World Cup guarantees Bahrain a huge publicity, and the association of its name with something positive. However, football is far from being the only sport Bahrain has invested in: the cyclist team of the Tour de France “Bahrain Victorious” have made the kingdom known in France and Europe, and many triathlon athletes are sponsored by the “Bahrain Endurance 13”.
The strategy of Saudi Arabia to embrace sports and use them to promote their country is not limited to investing abroad. Sport is an integral part of the Vision 2030 plan by the Saudi government. Just like was said in Ancient Rome, “bread and circuses” (or bread and games), sports have always been political. By keeping its population active and healthy, by providing them with extensive possibilities of distractions, the Saudis want to create a new vision, a new society. By doing that, its image will be of a strong and dynamic society that will attract both tourists and investors.
The term “sportwashing” is used to describe “when an individual, group, corporation or nation-state uses sport to improve its reputation and public image” . For instance, when a country organizes a sport event or purchases a team, this creates a new positive image for the country, and “washes away” the old, negative image. One of the very first, and probably one of the most emblematic examples of sportwashing would be the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936, that took place in a very peculiar historical context, since it was the very first Olympic event since Adolf Hitler had arrived in power in Germany. The Games had not much of a proper sports competition, but were rather a demonstration of strength and a attempt to validate the racist nazi ideology. By organizing the Olympic Games in Berlin, the German authorities were in reality trying to send a message to the rest of the world, that is also what is happening with modern sportwashing.
The recent investments by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in different sports teams in Europe is an attempt to break the image of dictatorships that violate human rights, and replace them with a more modern, more progressive image of a country that finances very famous and successful sports teams. As a result, when hearing or reading the names of these countries, people will immediately connect them with the football teams they invested in, and not with their systemic violations of human rights and freedoms.
Indeed, the Saudi Arabia 2020 Human Rights Report and the Bahrain 2020 Human Rights Report emphasized the culture of impunity still in place in these two countries, and highlighted significant human rights issues including, but not limited to: executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; unlawful killings; torture and inhuman treatment; violence and discrimination; harsh and degrading prison conditions and the lack of access to medical care in prisons; arbitrary arrests; restrictions on freedom of expression, press, internet, association, religion, peaceful assembly and movement.
The first criticism that can be addressed to the purchases of these clubs is that they are financed by public money. The acquisition of the Newcastle United Football Club, for instance, was at 80% financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, meaning with the resources of the country, and not with the ruler’s personal savings. The fact that more and more European football teams are being acquired by Gulf monarchies is slowly revealing the deep corruption that exists in this specific activity. The reaction of Newcastle fans is very instructive in this matter, as many of them burst in joy shortly after learning their club had been taken over by Saudi Arabia. For many, it indicated the end of the financial issues of their club, and a new beginning. Many were even chanting “we have our club back” , as if an injection of money in the system would automatically bring the Newcastle UFC back to its glorious days. The chants are, to say the least, quite ironic : even though one of the conditions for the deal was the assurance of non-intervention in the daily issues of the club, a close friend of the Saudi monarch, Yasir Al-Rumayyan was named chairman of the club. It is naive to think that the United Kingdom still manages their own club when 80% of it is in fact owned by a dictatorship in the Gulf. More than the particular situation of Newcastle’s football club, this is a broader topic on the capacity for Europe to respect its own values and finance its own sports without resorting to petro monarchies. The indecent amounts of money involved in the markets symbolize the failure of European values in front of money.
But the most worrying consequence is probably the fact that giving a positive image to countries such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain invisibilizes the struggle of the activists and NGOs that are trying to raise awareness about what is going on in these countries. Indeed, groups and NGOs asked the Premier League to weigh not only money, but also human rights issues, and urged it to introduce a new owners’ and directors’ test in order to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The government of Saudi Arabia purchased Newcastle not out of generosity or for the love of football, but solely because of the positive consequences it would have on their own image.
Saudi Arabia is known worldwide for having one of the world’s worst human rights records, being qualified as “not free”, and being one of the worst countries where a woman could ever live. The problem is that having a bad reputation is never good for business, and even less for attractivity and tourism. This can be considered as the main reason why the Saudi and Bahraini rulers decided to invest massively in famous sports teams: the governments would rather have the image of benefactors, someone who allows Europeans to enjoy their football games; than the image of a country that tortures its own citizens, that beats them, whips them and uses electric shocks against them. On the contrary, sports unite people, create an atmosphere of exchange, of passion and of tolerance. Football has, for decades, created spaces of brotherhood and solidarity among the fans. The Saudi and the Bahraini governments have the opposite values, values of conflict, of stigmatization and of persecution, they represent the opposite of sport, and should not be a part of it.