In the Premier League English has long since ceased to be the predominant language, at least at the leadership level. Currently, the owners of only 5 of the 20 teams that make up the famous league are local. Instead, the cadres have come to rely on foreign funds, primarily American, increasingly closely followed by vast Arab fortunes.
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The most recent case is that of Newcastle United, bought on October 7 by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the investment and savings fund that is defined as independent but is supported by the Saudi kingdom, to be more specific by the questioned crown prince Mohamed bin Salman.
The operation was agreed at 405 million dollars, a figure that did not even tickle the 406 billion dollars that the PIF is estimated to have as a fortune.
The operation, which had been cooking since the end of 2019 but was frustrated in 2020, has generated a series of criticisms, mainly due to the human rights violations that are committed in the huge country located in the Persian Gulf.
One of the main voices that was heard after the purchase was that of Amnesty International, the human rights organization has requested a meeting with the executive president of the Premier League to broach the subject.
Hatice Cengiz, fiancee of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered in 2018 at the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul by order, according to the Turkish and American intelligence services, of the prince Bin Salman, also expressed his annoyance.
“I’m really sad. I guess money is more important than everything in this life ”, he said after qualifying the operation as “a shame for him english soccer”.
The Premier, for its part, has defended itself through a statement in which they ensure that the transaction does not imply that the Newcastle will become the property of Saudi Arabia. The dependence of the PIF on Saudi oil, however, casts doubt on the certainty in the words of the representatives of the league.
The one with Newcastle it is just the latest, in an ever-growing list, of great European teams that have become the property of Arab investors. In this sense, the best known cases are those of Manchester City, bought in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group, and that of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), in the hands of the Qatar Investment Authority since 2011.
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“We are talking about small countries with many natural resources. Gas for Qatar. Oil and gas for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But for years the royal families of these countries have been willing to diversify their income, because they know that natural resources will eventually run out. So, they prefer to invest in companies from different industrial and cultural sectors to protect themselves in the future.”, comments the Trade from Dubai, Mohamed Badine El Yattioui, Professor of International Relations at the American University in the Emirates (AUE).
“The advantage of a club soccer is that investment is important at the beginning, but in terms of image, who knew where Qatar was located before the purchase of PSG or organizing the World Cup? About the UAE, everyone knows Dubai as the paradise of tourism and finance, but Abu Dhabi is the federal capital and is less well known. This is a ‘soft power’ strategy”He adds.
“The soccer worldwide it gives a lot of visibility. Qatar did it with PSG, the World Cup and putting their airline on the Barcelona shirt. Saudi Arabia he wants that too”, Says the historian and professor at the UPC, Jorge Illa.
The Spanish academic also highlights the social impact that the arrival of these new investors entails. “There is an academic article on Liverpool where they analyze the messages on social networks of the club, comparing it with other cities and clubs. The study revolves around the figure of the Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah. In it they show how among the citizens of Liverpool there were fewer Islamophobic messages since Salah played there. Hatred of Islam dropped in Liverpool thanks to a player. Imagine the sympathy it could generate Saudi Arabia if you take out the Newcastle Champions of the Champions”, He says.
In that sense, the arrival of Saudi funds to European football seemed inevitable. But then why did it take almost a decade longer than the others to appear on the scene?
“In case of Saudi Arabia it is interesting because it is the largest country of the six in the Persian Gulf. The issue is that until 2015, with the coming to power of the prince Bin Salman, in the kingdom they did not have diversification or investment abroad as a strategy. Bin Salman has a totally different vision, he knows that these resources will run out, he is a young man and he knows that the most popular sport is soccer. The advantage of Newcastle is that it is a historic team, although it has had bad results – far from its times with Alan Shearer or David Ginola – its stadium has always been full. The people of Newcastle love their club. For the Saudis that was important. In addition, it should be understood as a competition between the Gulf countries: ‘you have a club, I also have mine’. ‘You are rich? I also’”Explains El Yattioui.
But this show of power would not only be directed at its regional neighbors but also at the Old Continent.
“There are two parts: the Arab interest, but also Europe’s interest in letting that be done. From the Arab point of view, there is a regional rivalry. Qatar has the Soccer World Cup, Saudi Arabia had managed to take the Spanish Super Cup and the Italian Super Cup. There is a rivalry between those who can have the best”Says Illa.
“Between them is a way to show your competence. The other element is to show Europe that all sectors can buy. In Greece, the port of Piraeus is owned 51% by Chinese; in Barcelona the Chinese invested. Emiratis, Qataris or Saudis are investing in all companies in the cultural and industrial sector. This reveals that in addition to financial interests, in the soccer there are very strong geopolitical games outside of Europe. We are not talking about European countries or the United States, we are talking about a region that does not have a historical football tradition”Says El Yattioui.
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“This shows the financial capacity of these countries, the geopolitical pressure they can exert and the change that exists. Outside of the Saudi case, we see that the PIF now wants to buy Inter Milan, which was owned by a Chinese investor. It is further proof of the change in geopolitical perspective that the future will be in the East: the Middle East and the Far East. Nobody would have imagined it a few years ago, but the purchase of the Newcastle reflects the paradigm shift“, Add.
INVESTMENT OR FACE WASHING?
Beyond commercial interests and the intention to demonstrate who can show greater financial muscle, the acquisition of the Newcastle has been interpreted as an attempt to improve the image of Saudi Arabia, questioned for its precarious defense on human rights issues.
“They are governments with great deficiencies in human rights, freedoms and more. It is a facelift for them, because they are sympathetic to the millions of fans of the soccer“, Says Illa.
But will he be able to soccer to annul international questions that fall on the Saudi crown?
“You have the Mussolini World Cup in ’34, Hitler’s Olympics in ’36, in 1978 the World Military Boards of Argentina. Historically sports in general, and the soccer in particular, they have served for that”, Argues the historian.
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For El Yattioui, however, both aspects would not be as related as presumed. “Obviously (Khashoggi’s fiancée) has the right to issue that criticism, but I think they are two totally different things. Image, in that sense, doesn’t matter so much (to the heads behind mutual funds). The Chinese are investing everywhere and no one is denying them despite the persecution of the Uyghurs. The countries with financial capacity at the moment are not democracies in the liberal sense, that is something new. Since 1945 the powers promoted human rights along with the capitalist model. Today we have powerful people with a capitalist model but without democracy or human rights. That is very difficult for a part of the public opinion and western intellectuals to accept.“, Explain.
To better understand this point, it is necessary to analyze the last few years in Saudi Arabia, specifically since Bin Salman he was appointed as crown prince of the kingdom, which broke with the traditional succession between sons of the founding king.
“The prince has the full confidence of the king Salman. He initiated a series of economic, social, educational and political system reforms framed in the so-called Vision 2030. Since the kingdom was founded in 1932, the king ruled with his brothers. In their system, all the kings have been the sons of the founding king Abdulaziz bin Saúd. That generated a consensus because the children, grandchildren and nephews of these rulers knew that they would not be kings, but there was a division of power between them. This allowed thousands of princes to live very well thanks to oil money”, Explains the AUE professor.
“Bin Salman He said that the reform of the country should be accompanied by a new political system, he put many of his uncles and cousins in jail for considering them corrupt. But there was also the Khashoggi case, who was a person close to the royal family. When the journalist began to be critical, he collided with the dark character of Bin Salman. Although the prince has a modern vision of society, politics and the economy, it is an authoritarian vision, a modernization at a forced march”He adds.
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