Content Notice: This article contains brief discussion of murder and bodily mutilation

For most of Mike Ashley’s fourteen years in charge of Newcastle United, fans wanted to see the back of him. Protests, walk-outs, and chants of “Get out of our club” became the norm at St. James’ Park, but fan rebellions against Ashley’s ownership for a long time fell on deaf ears. In November 2018, the club’s official supporter group blocked the entrance to Ashley’s Sports Direct flagship store, demanding for their voices to be heard.

One month earlier and 1500 miles away, Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist unofficially exiled from his own country for daring to criticise its regime, walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He never walked out. Murdered and dismembered under the suspected orders of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, the following years witnessed the global shining of a scrutinous light on Saudi Arabia’s political activity.

Mohammed bin Salman is also Chairman of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia and the very organisation that has just claimed 80% ownership of Newcastle United, making them the Premier League’s richest club. Following the announcement last Thursday (07/10), the customary protests outside St. James’ were replaced by wild celebrations, as the chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust Greg Tomlinson declared that “fans have hope and can dream about their football club again”. Ashley was gone and fan voices were heard. But as festivities on the Tyne lasted long into the night, it was easy to forget that Khashoggi’s voice is one that will never be heard again.

“If the power brokers of world sport are actively supporting sportswashing, what on earth can a fan, armed only with a Sky Sports subscription and maybe a season ticket, do to make a difference?”

Newcastle’s completed takeover is the latest example in an increasingly prevalent and troubling trend known as “sportswashing”, with Amnesty International describing the recent deal as a “PR tool to help cover up its [Saudi Arabia’s] abysmal human rights record”. Though the term is a new one, the use of elite sports to improve a country’s reputation on the world stage dates back not only to the days of Benito Mussolini’s 1934 World Cup and Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, but also to the golden age of Rome where tyrant Nero established and entered his own version of the Games in an effort to improve his standing with the recently conquered Greeks.

In the modern era, Saudi Arabia is not the only culprit of using sport to distract from a chequered human rights record. Qatar’s freshly announced (30/09) ten-year deal with Formula 1, beginning in 2023, to host a Grand Prix in the streets of Doha is yet another attempt to establish the tiny peninsular country as a key destination for sports fans. In the same summer as Qatari royal family-owned Paris Saint Germain signed football’s biggest superstar in Lionel Messi, Amnesty published a detailed report finding “clear evidence of Qatar’s long standing failure to prevent, investigate and remedy the deaths of migrant workers” whilst building stadiums for next winter’s World Cup.

As F1 fans undoubtedly look forward to watching the promised twists and turns of 2023’s season, it will likely be difficult for them to remain mindful of Qatar’s human rights abuses when the glitz and glamour of elite motorsport takes centre stage. But can we blame them for this outlook? After all, it’s not the fans that are responsible for scheduling a Grand Prix in Qatar, it’s the management of Formula One, backed by its wealthy controlling partners Liberty Media. Meanwhile, it was FIFA, not the fans, that controversially granted Qatar the 2022 World Cup back in 2010, football’s corruption-strewn international governing body.  If the power brokers of world sport are actively supporting sportswashing, what on earth can a fan, armed only with a Sky Sports subscription and maybe a season ticket, do to make a difference?

“A middle ground of informed acceptance of both the good and the bad that comes with Qatari and Saudi dealings is beginning to be tread by fans and those in power alike”

There are two extremes to this argument. On the one hand, fans can choose to become sporting ascetics, refusing to tune in to the Qatar Grand Prix, 2022 World Cup, and all Premier League matches involving Newcastle United. If this is what one must do to call themselves a sports fan with morals, why not take it even further? Why not refuse to acknowledge any Premier League team with an official link to a betting company, making Norwich City the de facto winners of a tournament of one. Why not chisel the PSG crest off the gleaming image of Kylian Mbappé on your new copy of FIFA 22 like an extremely socially-conscious competitor in Squid Game? Also, what is the point of fans boycotting such events if the sportspeople involved even refuse to do so? If Britain’s richest-ever sportsperson and prolific social activist, Lewis Hamilton, will take to the tarmac in Qatar, in spite of the nation’s reputation, why should an armchair F1 fan renounce it?

The other extreme is blissful ignorance, turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as you cheer on Hamilton during the newest Grand Prix in the F1 calendar, all whilst wearing your freshly printed Newcastle United shirt without a care in the world. That’s what some would have you believe sports fans are ready to do. The patronising view that, as Magpies fans celebrate Ashley’s departure like their avian namesakes, they’ve been distracted from the grim, moral reality of Saudi ownership by the shiny gleam of wealth and promise of better days to come.


Mountain View

Finding political voice in North Africa's football stands

Somewhere amidst these two extremes, however, lies an answer to the question of whether it’s possible to be an ethical fan in this modern era of sportswashing. A middle ground of informed acceptance of both the good and the bad that comes with Qatari and Saudi dealings is beginning to be tread by fans and those in power alike. A statement by United with Pride, Newcastle’s official LGBTQ+ supporters group, acknowledged that “Saudi Arabia [...] is one of the least tolerant for LGBTQ+ and gender rights anywhere in the world”, but hoped that the deal would provide “an opportunity for [Saudi] decision makers [...] to witness how other cultures treat their minority groups”. Concurrently, an official statement from Amanda Staveley, the main talking head behind the PIF takeover, included the telling line: “We know only too well that the whole community wants a club of which it can be proud - both on the pitch and off”.

Few will forget the scenes that played out back in April, as fans across Europe united in vocal opposition to the proposed European Super League. Like the ESL, sportswashing’s success depends on positive PR, but if football and F1 fans alike can pressure these regimes into launching social change, then there’s no telling what can be accomplished.

Between the two poles of a silent boycott and blissful ignorance, there ultimately resides a common supporter that needs to stay politically informed and use the terraces to amplify both their own voices and those of the silenced. In this hopeful outcome, perhaps it’s possible to be an ethical sports fan after all.