Three years ago this month, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has marked this grim anniversary by using the Saudi sovereign wealth fund he chairs to buy Premier League football club Newcastle United for a reported £300 million. But as many Newcastle fans cheer the news, women’s rights activists and political prisoners are languishing in Saudi jails.
Hosting major sporting events is a major part of Saudi Arabia’s “sportswashing” strategy, an effort to distract from its serious human rights abuses by taking over events that celebrate human achievement. Buying a Premier League club is perhaps Saudi leaders’ most high-profile effort so far to launder their appalling human rights record.
The government has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this strategy. High-profile sporting events hosted in the kingdom recently include the Heavyweight World Boxing Title bout, the Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament, World Wrestling (WWE) pay-per-view professional wrestling events, and the Dakar Rally, a legendary desert race.
But football fans need to look past the glamour of these events and the riches that Newcastle hopes will be invested in its team. Human Rights Watch reporting shows the darker side of Saudi Arabia, with widespread rights abuses including mass arrests and detention, a crackdown on dissent and free speech, surveillance and hacking, and jailing of the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates.
Global football’s governing body, FIFA, has a Human Rights Policy, and a robust due diligence should have been conducted on the owners and directors before Saudi Arabia was allowed to buy the Newcastle club. Human Rights Watch has long called on the Premier League to consider human rights records and to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy when evaluating potential buyers of football clubs.
For those who call football “the beautiful game,” the Saudi’s Newcastle takeover is a wake-up call. Fans, athletes, and journalists who don’t want their sport and favorite clubs tarnished with ugly human rights abuses should demand that the English FA and the Premier League adopt and immediately implement a human rights policy.