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Report Reveals UK Cities’ Involvement in Sportswashing

A fan of Newcastle United can be seen wearing the traditional Saudi head dress and draped in a Saudi Arabia flag head of the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur in London, UK. [Robbie Jay Barratt /AMA/Getty Images]

FairSquare used anonymous interviews and existing public investigations to study the impact of sportswashing in Manchester and Newcastle

BNR – Local politics and the extreme reduction in industrial activity made it easy for Arab businessmen to acquire the two British football clubs.

A new report details the takeover of Manchester City and Newcastle United using money related to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The report namely ‘Easy Cities to Buy’ presents how the frugality of the UK’s economy made heavy-industry cities lack investment. This has, consequently, led football clubs to go after crown money in the Arab World.

The London-based human rights organisation FairSquare published the report. The organisation used anonymous interviews and existing public investigations to study the impact of sportswashing in the two northern cities.

Sportswashing is a term that refers to abusing sports to make a false profound reputation of a state or government. The scheme involves hosting sports activities with clubs and players enhancing the worldwide image of those governments.

Sportswashing and Human Rights Implications

According to the report, the local lawmakers knowingly ignored the dark human rights record of both countries.

UAE and Saudi Arabia are infamous for restricting free speech and persecuting dissidents locally and globally.

Furthermore, the report mentions that lawmakers in Manchester turned a blind eye towards concerns related to rights and liberties. Similarly, politicians in Newcastle were negligent to the point of exposing themselves to deception.

One of the report’s co-authors said that “politicians’ silence is a major boost” when countries realise the good impact of certain sports. “You do not have to work hard to defend your reputation.”

The report comes as the Qatari Sheikh Jassim plans to acquire Manchester United, a move similar to previous acquisitions.

British Lawmakers Pave the Field

Furthermore, the report reveals how the UK administration paved the way for the acquisition of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia.

The government pressured concerned parties to enable the acquisition and eased the work for them within the country. They lobbied for the buys and used their ties as a wild card to secure deals in the commerce industry.

Following the Premier League’s rejection of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to buy the club, a top-to-bottom pressure campaign secured the deal in October 2021.

The Athletic conducted a thorough probe into the incident in April 2023, revealing new–but not very shocking–information. The probe showed several e-mails between British lawmakers, the Prime Minister, and the Saudi Crown Prince to secure the acquisition.

McGeehan explained that local lawmakers aided Saudi Arabia and made them feel at home in the country. Locally, the report argues that lawmakers were pressured to not doubt or ask questions about the new deal.

“Left-leaning secular or liberal politicians are generally quite minded to raise human rights issues,” McGeehan stated. “But there was absolutely nothing!”

Manchester City Council stated the shareholders of Manchester City are not closely associated with the state. It also claimed that the report presents a “one-sided” point of view.

Lack of Press Scrutiny Dooms Football

The report further indicates that local news outlets were ‘natural’ in covering human rights causes, despite lawmakers’ negligence.

Reporters in both countries focused on the positive side of the acquisition deal. The report stated that journalists purposefully ignored covering the human rights situation in both countries.

“I think it was the response of the media that surprised me,” McGeehan said. He also said that these acquisitions have destroyed the organisations of democracy within the country.

Moreover, the report said that the absence of supervision from resourceful media results in the ongoing abuse of sports, particularly football, as a political tool.

According to the report, every acquisition model may be slammed, including billionaire takeovers. However, state-sponsored acquisitions have the most negative impact on human rights.

“Buying a football club is a far more effective way to burnish your reputation because it allows you to tell a story about yourself without attracting scrutiny,” McGeehan explained.

The state-owned Abu Dhabi United Group bought the Manchester City club in September 2018. Similarly, the Saudi PIF finalised the deal for the purchase of Newcastle United in October 2021.


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