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Newcastle’s Saudi Takeover Is Just the Latest Chapter in Football Capitalism

The Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United might be welcomed by success-starved fans, but handing another football institution over to billionaire tyrants will scar the game and the communities that built it.

Credit: Getty Images

The sale of Newcastle United Football Club to the Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund (PIF) may be viewed as simply another take-over by an international-based consortium from the British capitalist class that has characterised the Premier League in recent years. However, the close relationship between the PIF and the Saudi state (Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is also the Chairman of the Fund) means that this investment reflects the growing entanglement of a form of Middle Eastern state capitalism into the UK that should worry us all. With promises of accompanying ‘investment’ into the communities of Tyneside, it follows that these flows of petro-wealth will soon spill out from the football club and begin to reshape the city itself and its political sphere.

To understand what might lay ahead for Newcastle, we can look to another post-industrial city, Manchester, and its experience with the owners of Manchester City. The Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) have attempted, like PIF, to demonstrate its independence from the Abu Dhabi state and its ruler, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. However, as Die Spiegel have reported, ‘The responsible people at Man City are primarily the crown prince’s men rather than Sheikh Mansour’s.’ In effect, the total power wielded by MBZ in Abu Dhabi means these distinctions are arguably arbitrary, as seems likely to be the case in Newcastle.

In Manchester, the initial splurge in the transfer market and the transformation of the club soon led to ADUG being invited to develop working relationships with the Labour-run council. This already seems to be happening in Newcastle: indeed Council Chief Executive Pat Ritchie has been pushing for over a year for the Premier League to speed up approval of the takeover, calling the deal ‘transformational’ for the city.

If investment into the communities of Newcastle proceeds, it will no doubt be welcomed by an austerity-hit council in desperate need of funds. In Manchester this came in the form of the Manchester Life partnership: a real estate venture between the Labour-run council and ADUG that subsequently developed hundreds of apartments in the Ancoats and New Islington neighbourhoods. Despite pronouncements of a £1 billion deal, a growing body of evidence has demonstrated the huge costs to the public purse of this partnership: 999 year leases for public land, public loans for development, and the avoidance of any contributions of affordable or social housing in a city experiencing an intensifying housing crisis.

Given the partnership was supposed to be a 50/50 venture and involved these significant public contributions, it therefore seems extraordinary that all the rental income from Manchester Life is flowing to Abu Dhabi via its Jersey-based holding company. The council response has been to offer some vague assurance of ‘longer-term profit sharing arrangements’. These details of the Manchester Life deal leave many in the city wondering why council leaders have allowed ADUG to extract so much from Manchester now and centuries into the future without the city acquiring significant financial benefit.

This unequal partnership might reflect the power of Abu Dhabi as a state as compared to a British local authority when it came to negotiations, as well as the desperation of the municipality to pursue its neoliberal regeneration agenda. But if that is the case, why would Newcastle City Council be any different?

The potential for states like Abu Dhabi to diversify their petro-wealth through investment into UK real estate is arguably not the only reason that the Manchester Life partnership proceeded. In Manchester, it seems evident after the last seven years that the city itself, and not just the football club, has become incorporated into the UAE’s Soft Power Strategy, used to deflect from image problems concerning its atrocious human rights record.

‘Brand Manchester’ and ‘Brand Abu Dhabi’ have now become closely entwined – a public relations exercise for the Emirati state alongside other global investments used to launder its image, such as New York University and the Louvre. In Newcastle, it seems evident that the purchase of the football club will be used by the Saudi state to also launder its image. And it likely won’t be long before the city of Newcastle is itself mobilised: ever-closer partnerships, investments, and real estate deals risk locking the city and its people into a long-standing relationship with a regime that has, like Abu Dhabi, been accused of serious human rights violations at home and abroad.

If public opposition to these deals in Newcastle does surface, the politicians involved may be tempted to follow the Manchester playbook in trying to silence campaigners to limit embarrassment and scrutiny. From passing Freedom of Information requests to representatives of the Abu Dhabi United Group to censoring artistic performances critical of the partnership, senior politicians in Manchester have been only too happy to act in the interests of their friends. Indeed, in a recent interview, Council Leader Richard Leese failed to deny ‘an over-intimate relationship‘ with ADUG, while regularly ignoring requests from residents and campaigners to speak out about human rights concerns.

The takeover of football clubs by state-capitalist ventures must be more vigorously resisted by the Premier League and supporters groups, even if they are as success-starved as Newcastle United and Man City fans once were. But the politics of these deals cannot stop at the turnstiles. With the evolution of these ‘projects’ beyond the stadium, a further set of political questions are being generated about whether cities such as Manchester and now Newcastle are willing to allow themselves to be used to launder the image of regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

Despite promises of wider investment used to justify such partnerships, this may turn out to simply be allowing new forms of financial extraction through rent and real estate development across urban space, further exacerbating inequality and the housing crisis. The costs seem too high.