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Petroball: How Human Rights Abusers and Carbon Emitters Hide behind Soccer

Newcastle fans celebrate the Saudi purchase of Newcastle F.C. (Via AP)

Draped in Saudi flags and mock-ups of traditional clothing, Newcastle United fans streamed into St. James Park on October 17th to celebrate the Saudi state. A consortium of investors led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund had just acquired the team and instantly made the nation a local hero. Optimism among fans was at its highest point in years, nevermind that the takeover was directed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is leading a proxy war of attrition in Yemen and who ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Newcastle has joined a ring of “petroclubs,” teams owned by oil states or magnates, that seems to expand every few years. Fellow Premier League outfits Manchester City and Chelsea F.C. are also inextricable from oil money in their ownership structures, with Manchester City’s funding coming from Emerati royalty and Chelsea’s from a Russian oil oligarch. French giant Paris Saint-Germain is owned by Qatar, and dozens of clubs in Europe’s top leagues—and the leagues themselves—have heavy financial backing from petrostate subsidiaries like the state-owned airlines Qatar Airways and Emirates. The growing influence in world soccer of some of the world’s worst carbon emitters and human rights violators helps those actors evade public scrutiny, in addition to damaging the integrity of the sport.

Soccer is the world’s game, where fans’ reverie for successful clubs extends to the corporations and nations that support them. Standing behind a renowned team earns the sponsor  a portion of the success in the minds of diehard and casual fans alike. The public relations benefits of owning a soccer club are not lost on bin Salman, whose ambitious international rebranding of his nation has found another home in Newcastle. Saudi Arabia is in great need of good PR; Alongside waging war in Yemen and suppressing free speech, bin Salman and Saudi Arabia also have to contend with the optics of policies stymying climate action and increasing oil production.

The monumental task of keeping Saudi Arabia in the public’s good graces is behind the nation’s purchase of Newcastle, and these intentions are a poorly-kept secret. “Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” said Sacha Deshmukh, the chief executive of Amnesty International in Great Britain. Simply acquiring the team has diverted attention. “People are talking about the country now for something that isn’t about Yemen or about Khashoggi or human rights,” noted Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf state political expert at Rice University.

This expensive, bold investment is akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a rat-infested house. But don’t underestimate the power of a new look. “Sportswashing,” where an embattled individual, organization, or nation attempts a public opinion facelift by involving itself in sports, is a time-tested strategy. Nations routinely host major sporting events to rehabilitate their image, from the 1936 Olympics in Germany to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. What makes petrostates’ control over soccer clubs different from traditional one-off events is that soccer ownership and sponsorship provide long-term positive PR. A successfully hosted World Cup fades from memory while a successful soccer club builds a desirable brand as long as the team prospers. And it is difficult not to prosper when a club has the financial backing of an oil state. No nation seems to understand this better than Qatar.

Qatar is a sportswashing darling, rinsing its sins in a PR deluge. Over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the 2022 World Cup was awarded to it ten years ago, nearly all of which the Qatari state refuses to investigate. In the pressing climate arena Qatar is doubling down on fossil fuel investment, recently committing $29 billion to a new natural gas facility that will open in 2027.

But in the soccer world, Qatar has become synonymous with success. The burgundy crest of Qatar Airways has been splashed across the jerseys of European elites FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich in recent years. Qatar also sponsors competitions on four continents and has an “innovative partnership” with FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. The crown jewel of Qatar’s soccer empire is Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), a French powerhouse that has won seven French league titles in the past nine years compared to just two in the club’s history before Qatar acquired it in 2011. 

In addition to making PSG successful, Qatari money has made the club cool. This is especially advantageous when diverting attention away from human rights and climate atrocities. The club boasts the Air Jordan logo on all of their apparel and has spent obscene sums of money signing the world’s best and flashiest players. The financial cost of remaking a club is high, but the club provides the sponsor nation love, support, and status to a degree unparalleled by any other asset. PSG is something of a blueprint for what Saudi Arabia can hope to achieve with Newcastle. 

To many people more in tune with politics than sports, Gulf states’ forays into European soccer may represent nothing more than diversions from morally reprehensible actions at home and on the international stage. But to the long-suffering fans of clubs now bankrolled by petrostates, the tale of their clubs’ newfound and projected success can only be told by idolizing the nations that make it possible. “The club is the heartbeat of the city and it’s basically been on a life-support system for a decade if not more,” said Newcastle fan Paul Loraine. “As fans there’s not a lot we can do about the human rights stuff.”

Frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Newcastle has floundered while clubs like PSG and Manchester City thrive thanks to their deep-pocketed foreign investors. Manchester City underwent a rags-to-riches story similar to that of PSG after Emirati royalty spearheaded an investment consortium to acquire the club in 2008. This consortium, City Football Group, now also owns New York City FC and significant stakes in teams in eight additional countries. While Manchester City signed world-class talent, Newcastle was relegated to the second division. While Manchester City has won four titles in nine years, Newcastle has not been the English league champion since 1927. So if Manchester City was permitted an immensely successful takeover—executed without regard for its new patron’s crimes – what’s the big deal if Newcastle follows suit?

Herein lies the growing problem in the world’s highest level of soccer: Bottomless pockets are the key difference separating the haves from the have-nots, and the origin of a club’s financing is of little importance. Even the Premier League itself doesn’t seem to care, permitting the Newcastle deal so long as it received “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi government will not “control” the club, a bizarre assertion given that bin Salman and other government officials now direct the club’s finances. Each player who walks through the doors of Newcastle in the coming years will be tainted by the abuse, death, and damage caused by Saudi Arabia.

The coffers of an oil-rich nation cannot answer to the murder of a journalist, but they can divert attention to a brand defined by success in a universal pastime. From Riyadh to Newcastle, nothing is stopping Saudi Arabia from converting Newcastle into a sportswashing juggernaut with sporting success as an added perk. The world’s greatest human rights abusers and climate change creators are weaving their interests into the fabric of elite soccer and unstitching the previously unmistakable line between sporting success and human rights abuse. As this boundary disappears, the only winners are petrostates and their PR.