Greed, Geopolitics, Propaganda & Football.
By Adrian Calamel
October 7th Newcastle natives (Geordies) rejoiced in the streets as a 2-year struggle against the sale of their club unexpectedly went through with a consortium of the Saudi Public Investment Fund or PIF (80%), Amanda Staveley (10%) and the Reuben brothers (10%) finally taking the reins over from Mike Ashley. The last 14-years of Ashley’s ownership have ruined the weekends of every member of the Newcastle United faithful known as the Toon Army. An owner that saw the club relegated twice to the second tier of English football, suspiciously announced the club was for sale to quell protests, yearly relegation battles in the Premier League, never reinvesting in the club whilst pocketing enormous profits and treating the city with utter contempt. There was also an overwhelming sense of disbelief and relief, it appeared as though the English Football Association (FA), English Premier League (EPL), the “Big-Six” clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal) and Qatar had successfully waged a propaganda campaign killing the takeover in July 2020. After examining all the twists and turns this deal clearly had little to do with football and more to do with a geopolitical struggle, a deceitful English Premier League compromised by Qatari influence and the hubris of a few duplicitous clubs that believe they should determine who can own a competing club.
It would make sense the FA and EPL, that operate as businesses, would be thrilled with the potential revenue generated by a consortium where 80% of the investment derives from PIF, making Newcastle United the richest club in the world and part of the FA and EPL dossier. Football is big business and landing Saudi investment would only grow the bottom line, the FA is more concerned with profit than the competitiveness of the league and clubs outside the “Big-Six.” For example, the FA gave its blessing to what it considers the “Big-Six” of English football to join an exclusive “European Super League” that was met with fierce opposition among supporters, managers, owners, and leaders of states. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of England, even went so far to say that the owners operated as a “cartel” in forming the league. Ironically, this league was devised after the initial bid to buy Newcastle was left to die on the vine by the FA. The creation of a super league that excluded 14 Premier League clubs in perpetuity would have started the demise of the English domestic league, regardless the FA gave its blessing to the elitist clubs for a profit. The plan was eventually scrapped due to the outrage from all corners with the exception of the “Big-Six” owners, the American owners of Manchester United actually tweeted an apology to its fans for the collapse of the league, a cynical gesture considering supporters of the Red Devils wanted nothing to do with the league and have been protesting against the owners (Glazers) for a decade.
However, over the course of 2-years the FA and “Big-Six” did everything in its power to stop the sale of Newcastle to the PIF consortium from going through, placing one roadblock in front of the next. The response from the Qatari government has been somewhat muted but I must assume the halls of Doha were less than pleased, they have been involved in a geopolitical struggle to destabilize Saudi Arabia and part of that campaign was stopping the sale of Newcastle United. One question that needs to be answered is whether the Qataris colluded with the EPL, FA and “Big-Six” clubs to quash the sale of Newcastle United because the conflicts of interest are staggering. Before examining this case in detail, it is important to give a brief history of the club and region.
Over the last 15-years there has been a disturbing trend with the historic clubs of Northern England, Sunderland, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Bolton have all been relegated to lower tiers of English football with little prospects of gaining promotion back into the Premier League. Had the sale of Newcastle been blocked the Magpies would certainly have been relegated and still could be unless the new owners can bring in quality players during the January transfer window. Amanda Staveley will be the face of the new ownership, prior to the sale she was most notable in football circles for brokering the deal to purchase Manchester City to a royal family sheikh, the Abu Dhabi United Group back in 2008. Manchester City has a rich history but starting in the 1980’s it appeared to be a dying club, bouncing back and forth between the top tier of English football and the lower divisions but spending most of its time in the latter. In less than ten-years Manchester City has established itself as one of the best football clubs in Europe, moving from possible obscurity into a “Big-Six” club.
In 2017 an undeniable buzz swept through the Toon Army and media outlets when Staveley showed up for a home game in the owner’s box next to Mike Ashley, she brokered the largest deal in Premier League history with Manchester City but did not have an ownership stake. On the pitch she saw a 1-1 draw against a superior Liverpool side, but Staveley got to witness the electric atmosphere that can only be found at St James’ Park, “The Cathedral on the Hill” is one of the largest stadiums in England with a capacity of 53,200. Amanda knew the “Top-Six” clubs and EPL from her football dealings, what they have or don’t have to offer, walking away from the stadium that day she said that this was the club, she would use her own finances coupled with influence in the Middle East to buy Newcastle United. Staveley saw the upside and all the potential that a strong Newcastle United had to generate revenue, reinvigorate the city built by William the Conqueror’s son and return the club to its former glory. Newcastle United supporters were equally excited when Staveley appeared at St. James’ Park and before long Mike Ashley officially put the club up for sale. For Americans to understand Newcastle United they are the baseball equivalent of the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox before both teams broke their respective curses, playing on the same grounds since 1892 with dedicated supporters. The only difference is that Newcastle United has not won the ultimate prize of a topflight finish in English Football since the year 1927, that is 90-year drought.
A deal that involved foreign investment within Amanda Staveley’s network provided hope for a competitive club and an economic boom for the city that often feels neglected by London. Newcastle had a difficult time transitioning from a production-based (Blue-Collar) economy to a service-based (White-Collar) economy, but at the turn of the century tourism and hospitality became economic drivers. A football match at St. James’ Park fuels tourism, when the club is successful the more games it will play in a season and that helps grow the economy with supporters of other clubs flowing into a city known for its nightlife and rich history dating back to the Romans. Not to long ago Newcastle was competing in the Champions League, hosting games against the likes of Barcelona, but the disastrous run under Mike Ashley has stunted that economic growth. It may sound reductionist, but the Mike Ashley reign can best be characterized as a host/parasite relationship, all that mattered was survival in the Premier League so that he could pocket the profits from lucrative Premier League television deals. This equates to fielding inferior squads in the two English domestic cups and has resulted in Newcastle United seeing early exits on a yearly basis, thus hurting local businesses with fewer games played. Prior to the large television contracts and during Ashley’s early tenure the approach was finding hidden gems at a bargain for survival, then sell for enormous profits once they become “recognized”; Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sissoko, Gini Wijnaldum. Or the case of Andy Carroll, born and raised in Gateshead across the Tyne from Newcastle, a homegrown talent that went through the club’s academy before Mike Ashley purchased the team. After proving himself as one of the most promising talents in England he was sold for £50 million pounds when Liverpool came knocking on the last day of the January transfer window in 2011. The PIF consortium provides something the club and city has never had, owner(s) that have the money to field a squad in Europe without going into debt and are willing to reinvest it in the club instead of using it as their own personal piggybank. The consortium views itself as partners with the city and Toon Army, they are invested and committed, continuing the deal even when COVID hit Newcastle harder than most places in Britain speaks volumes.
When PIF, Staveley and the Reuben brothers eventually did their due diligence an offer of £300 million pounds was tabled in April 2020 with a £10-million-pound non-refundable deposit made to Mike Ashley. The deposit alone should speak volumes about the level of confidence on the buyers side, the next step in the process was a formal review by the Premier League to ensure economic viability and the new owners haven’t violated rules of the game such as “match-fixing”. In the case of Manchester City, largest deal in the league’s history, the paperwork was submitted for the financial fitness or Owners & Directors Test (ODT) and within 20-days the Abu Dhabi Group owned City, there was no reason to believe the Newcastle sale would not follow a similar timeline and process, but that is not what happened. Instead, the Premier League moved the goalposts with the ODT, what was supposed to be a review of finances and potential football improprieties turned into a public trial of the Saudi Government told from one perspective.
A good place to start examining the campaign against PIF is the $500 million EPL television contract owned by Qatar’s “beIN Sports”, broadcasting the league in the Middle East and North Africa for the years 2022-2025. In 2017 Saudi Arabia had cancelled the rights for Qatar based beIN Sports to broadcast inside the country owing to a growing geopolitical conflict where the gulf states of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait are increasingly threatened by a hegemonic Islamic Republic of Iran aligned with Qatar. When the paperwork was filed allegations and a report issued by the WTO were used as a justification to block the sale, the Qataris stated the Kingdom was directly involved in pirating Premier League games or was not doing enough to clamp down on the issue. The Qatar based sports station has owned the broadcasting rights for years and was in the process of negotiating the $500 million contract renewal when PIF submitted its offer to buy Newcastle United in April 2020. After the takeover collapsed in July Qatar’s beIN Sports won the contract renewal in December, approved by every Premier League club with the notable exception of Newcastle United. Regardless the pirating issue was resolved before the July 2020 collapse, Saudi Arabia had agreed to make a better effort at fighting television piracy but not before it had displayed an interest in competing with beIN for the Premier League television contract. Overcoming this obstacle extended the ODT and any hope of a seamless transition, but once this story lost legs Qatar placed another obstacle that falls outside the purview of the ODT and quite frankly they are not qualified to weigh in on such matters. Qatar launched a media/propaganda campaign to scuttle the deal for good, a trial by British tabloids based on Saudi human rights records under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS).
This is not an article about moral relativism, but before reviewing the accusations against Saudi Arabia it is critical to examine Qatar, a foreign state that apparently has significant leverage over the Premier League and a horrendous human rights record that shows no signs of improving. The sardonic argument heard repeatedly from “Big-Six” clubs and the EPL was “Based on the Saudis human rights records we are concerned about unwanted attention,” a little rich considering Qatar’s track record and a league that has accepted a $875 million dollars from Qatar since 2018. From an international football perspective, Qatar through its state-run television outlet Al-Jazeera, offered a $400 million dollar bribe to FIFA for broadcasting rights to the 2022 World Cup, twenty-days later Qatar was named host of the World Cup to be held this summer. Bribery is not a human rights violation but in this case FIFA did appear to be prostituting itself out to Qatar and what does that say for their Premier League broadcasting contracts, is there a quid pro quo?
If you want to examine the intersection of abusive human rights and football Qatar is the poster child, for over a decade Qatar has been a serial abuser of human rights to get the country ready for the world’s largest sporting event. This is the first time a World Cup has been held in the Middle East where playing football and the desert climate do not mix well, but technology, a 400-million-dollar bribe and slave labor have made it possible. Hosting a FIFA World Cup takes considerable resources, a country’s GDP doesn’t equate to a robust infrastructure, resorts, hotels, transportation, dining, training grounds and multiple football stadiums that can hold 60,000-90,000 spectators. To accomplish this Qatar has used migrant laborers, paid wages just enough to elevate them above servitude for work in the heat of the Middle East, but there are only so many people desperate enough for this type of work. To fill the labor gap Qatar turned East and looked to N. Korea, a country that has concentration camps the size of cities and no regard for its citizens or the value of human life. Qatar is involved in what can only be called a “state-sponsored slavery” scheme where N. Korean workers are sent to the Middle East and paid the equivalent of $1-2 per hour and then that foreign currency is repatriated to N. Korea. The death toll from working in miserable and unsafe working conditions is unknown, but Qatar has been singled out by human rights groups such as Amnesty International for the use of slaves to build up the country for 2022.
The hypocrisy should be quite clear when the EPL or “Big-Six” claim they are concerned about their brand being associated with a publicly owned Saudi company, but they are in bed with Qatar for financial gain despite their miserable record human rights record tied directly to the sport of football. If you look beyond the sport of football and peel back the Qatar onion you will not find a benevolent actor or island of stability in a sea of storms portrayed by Western media. What you will find is a nation driven by Muslim Brotherhood leadership, an ideology pushed through Qatari media and radical mosques. Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group in Gaza, has been using Qatar charities for years to funnel cash for terrorism with lawsuits filed by the victims against the primary NGO that is run by a member of the Qatar royal family. The money was also moved through the Qatar National Bank that claims 50% of the interest is held by the royal family that in turn accessed the US financial system and American dollars in the scheme. Over 28-million-dollars moved through the charity with much of it going to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad “pay-for-slay” programs, when a member carries out a “martyrdom” operation killing innocent civilians the family is compensated for the loss of the suicide bomber, fueling more terrorism. When the Taliban wanted to open a foreign office in exile, the Qataris were more than willing to host them in 2013 and help pave the way for the disastrous “Doha Deal” leading to the collapse of Afghanistan. November 12th, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Qatar was going to represent American interests in Afghanistan, a scary proposition considering Qatar’s ideology is aligned with the Taliban and not the United States. Finally, Qatar cannot be looked at in a vacuum, the greater Middle Eastern geopolitical situation, specifically the Iranian relationship with Qatar is deserving of attention.
Qatar derives most of its wealth from the world’s largest natural gas reserve that it shares with The Islamic Republic of Iran, from their actions it appears they are more motivated by economics at the expense of stability or a moral compass. Qatar has decided to drift into Iran’s orbit, both regimes are aligned economically and share similar radical theological underpinnings, the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Qutbism” and The Islamic Republic’s “Khomeinism” that carry a revolutionary zeal and believe in a world governed by Islam. Iran is currently realizing its vision of creating a “Shi’a Crescent” in an attempt to hem in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, with its control of Lebanon, Syria after committing genocide, militias in Iraq threaten the government and its Houthi proxy rampaging through Yemen, the war-torn country and humanitarian disaster to the south of Saudi Arabia. This war in Yemen became one of the foundations of the propaganda campaign waged against the Saudis to question their human rights records and more specifically MBS. Once again it must be reiterated the EPL had no problem doing business with Iran’s Sunni enabler in the region that also has a poor human rights record, albeit not as egregious as The Islamic Republic of Iran.
The campaign against Newcastle’s sale based on human rights followed two simple narratives the public could easily seize on; one was the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The basic argument is the human rights disaster was caused by a Saudi aerial campaign against the Houthis where civilians were caught in the crosshairs. In addition, an embargo imposed to interdict shipping of nefarious and legitimate goods such as food and aid to Yemen, that would just end up in the hands of the Houthis. Well before the bid US Congress forced a move that limited Saudi operations to strictly defensive measures so that innocent civilians, at times human shields, would not be killed by Saudi airstrikes. Since then, and with alarming pace after the Biden administration removed the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation from the Houthis, there have been multiple rockets launched and bomb-laden “suicide-drones” targeting and hitting Saudi airports, civilian structures and commercial targets. The Houthis have also threatened international shipping along the coast of Yemen and are currently committing war crimes that may be likened to ISIS; sex-slaves, torture, public executions, child soldiers, targeting minorities, laying siege to Marib. As this article is being written the Houthis have just stormed the US Embassy and taken the staff hostage, likely local employee staff (LES) but not dissimilar to their paymasters in Tehran. Since the Saudis were pulled out of the battle space Yemen has deteriorated exponentially, to blame the humanitarian crisis on Saudi Arabia is disinformation and runs contrary to the facts. The Houthis and Iran are the driving force behind the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, but the Qatari propaganda machine laid the blame squarely on Saudi Arabia; and the EPL used this disinformation to further stall or ultimately kill any sale to the Saudi backed consortium.
The second narrative used to block the sale is directly tied to what has been accepted as fact, Jamal Khashoggi was a Washington Post journalist and MBS gave the order to have him killed, but what has been accepted as fact is part of the Qatari propaganda campaign. One move by MBS that gets little recognition is the crack down on radical mosques, preachers and royals that push the Muslim Brotherhood doctrine whereas Qatar is actively supporting this very doctrine that produced al-Qaeda. With Khashoggi we don’t know who gave the order, he didn’t work for the Washington Post but was a plagiarizer and paid agent of the Qatar Foundation, he was aligned with “conservative” Muslim Brotherhood factions inside The Kingdom opposing the liberalization taken under MBS. The story is a lot more complicated than meets the surface, but a simple narrative was shaped where MBS gave the order to have the “Washington Post” reporter executed. This story alone has been used to whitewash serial human rights violations of Iran and Qatar, shift the focus to Saudi Arabia over a singular act, a sensational story that the public can follow. As part of the media campaign Khashoggi’s partner sent open letters to the top newspapers in England and stirred up public outrage over what was certainly a horrific act. Weeks passed and then she sent a letter to members of parliament urging them to block the sale, in essence she wanted the English government to stop a financial transaction that involved PIF, ironic because PIF is one of England’s largest trading partners in the region. The Newcastle ODT process, a financial fitness test, became an examination of a geopolitical struggle with only one side of the argument being presented. If the EPL applied this type of approach to Saudi Arabia, then why does a Russian oligarch own Chelsea considering the number of journalists killed yearly by Putin? Why are Chinese nationals allowed to own Wolverhampton and Southampton, a country with no freedom of press and is ethnically cleansing the Muslim population with forced sterilizations and concentration camps?
The EPL would play a strategy of neither approving or denying the sale, stalling until something gave, the Saudi PIF and Staveley consortium pulled their bid in July 2020 after waiting four-months for a decision from the EPL. In the fallout it was revealed that at least 2 of the “Big-Six” clubs actively petitioned against the sale of Newcastle because it meant competition. This started the legal ball rolling, a battle that Newcastle and PIF would win because the EPL had violated anti-competition laws. When the deal was approved by the EPL because they didn’t have a leg to stand on in court, the “Big-Six” called an emergency meeting and summoned the President of the Premier League. The clubs that want to run the league as a cartel were upset that they had not been given adequate notice, a laughable statement considering this was a 2-year process and very public. Two of these clubs actually sought out funding from PIF but were turned down prior to the Newcastle bid and all 6-clubs wanted to create a “European Super-League” that would have destroyed the Premier League. They did not want competition and cynically amplified the propaganda campaign against the purchase. A few days after the “Big-Six” meeting every Premier League club with the exception of Newcastle held another session with the EPL to devise strategies that would limit the amount of money the consortium could invest. As Newcastle searched for a new manager to pull them out of the relegation battle it appeared as though there was a concerted conspiracy, one coach in Spain “sat-out” an evening match because it was reported he was on his way to Newcastle, within a day the deal had collapsed. A week later Newcastle named Eddie Howe as manager, he was unemployed and his last Premier League posting saw his side get relegated to the second tier, not a “blockbuster” name the new owners were looking to right the ship.
The ink is still drying on the Newcastle takeover contract but the propaganda campaign by Qatar and the “Big-Six” is still active, the Magpies are the only team that hasn’t won a game yet this season which places them in danger of relegation. The hypocrisy of the “Big-Six” clubs has been exposed and the sole motivating factor is financial gain, the revenue from the “European Super-League” that excluded the other 14-teams would give the “Big-Six” an unfair competitive advantage in the Premier League. The double-game that Qatar plays in regional and world affairs comes into focus when factoring the lengths it would go to block the sale to a Saudi consortium, for example shifting attention away from their own human rights record. Under MBS the Kingdom has liberalized but not at the pace his critics in the West would like, the same critics do not factor in that rapid and radical change usually lead to coups and/or revolutions, an internal struggle inside The Kingdom between “liberals” and “conservatives.” Qatar has displayed its willingness to throw around money to get what it wants so I will pose the same question that was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the article, did the Qataris collude with the EPL, FA and “Big-Six” clubs to stop the sale of Newcastle United. The city of Newcastle, the club, PIF, Staveley and Reuben brother consortium won this battle but the war against Newcastle is far from finished. Qatar, the EPL and other Premier League clubs have carried out a shameful act that will help revitalize the economy of Newcastle. Keep your eyes on this story, the closer we get to the transfer window on January 1st, 2021, more will be revealed about what dirty tricks Qatar, EPL, and “Big-Six” are willing to play in this battle against the city of Newcastle, the Toon Army and the club’s new owners.