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Newcastle are now a vehicle for Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing – not the club of Keegan, Shearer or Gascoigne

The i 10/16/2021 Kevin Garside

And so it begins. The clock is reset to year N, formally ending football’s ancient relationship with the community. The Newcastle fans parading their Saudi sympathies about the precinct severed in that show of comedy appreciation of their new owners over the past associations that defined them.

Whatever Newcastle become in the coming months and years funded by the wealth of a repressive regime they are no longer the club of Wor Jackie, Shackleton, Keegan, Shearer or Gascoigne.

That is not to lump responsibility for the latest acquisition of Premier League real estate by a foreign power steeped in human rights abuses on the Geordie Nation, merely to acknowledge how radically the landscape has changed. Since football does not exist in a vacuum there should be no real surprise at this.

Have a look around. The Saudi Public Investment Fund that bought 80 per cent of the Toon already moves in and out of our lives invisibly and silently with its investments in cultural staples like Netflix, Disney, Facebook, Shell, BP, Uber etc. The difference here is the shift into the public sphere. The purchase of a football club is not about shifting money around through some of our most established institutions for profit but to shape opinion in its favour.

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Three years after a Saudi hit squad boarded a plane for Istanbul with its cargo of bone saws to dispense medieval justice in the direction of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the arrival at Newcastle is a coming out of sorts, reflecting the belief in Riyadh that it is safe to push the Saudi agenda globally once more. The celebration at St James’ that greeted the Newcastle takeover suggests they are right.

Whatever your view, it is plainly absurd to expect local lads and lasses to hold to account a Saudi regime that is so deeply embedded in the British establishment. The British ambassador to the Kingdom of Saud posted this on his Twitter feed five days after the takeover was announced. “Fortuitous encounter with @Alwaleed_Saudi, the Saudi Gazza, and his fellow “Saudi Geordies” discussing prospects for Newcastle’s game against Tottenham and the rest of the season. Waleed is a canny tactician @Turki_alalshikh” the tweet ended with the hashtag ‘sportisGreat’, which spelt another way reads job done Mohammed bin Salman, MBS to his friends.

If there is an unexpected benefit to the Saudi incursion into western society it is the law of unintended consequences. Whilst this is self-evidently a geo-political move to deflect and shape opinion, otherwise known as ‘sportswashing’, it contributes to a dynamic already under way and that is not so easy for the elders to control. Approximately two thirds of the Saudi population, some 22 million people, are under the age of 30, and the majority of those are connected to the outside world via the internet.

Reconciling the suppression of women, the persecution of the LBGQT community, public executions and other repellent prohibitions to the rapidly changing environment is becoming an ever more difficult circle for the ancien regime to square. Much of the change is being driven by young women resistant to the guardianship culture and gender segregation.

The Wilson Centre, an American research body, foresees a point where youthful sentiment reaches a critical mass to accelerate change from within. Maybe a Kylian Mbappe hat-trick against Real Madrid in the Champions League final to bring the European Cup to Tyneside will be the cannonball that finally breaks the damn, triggering a raft of reforms that sweep the old boys and their instruments of repression and torture out of the picture.

For now, Newcastle begin the process of adjustment from lost cause to cause celebre, the focus of global attention, envy, speculation, comment. That began with the excruciating appearance of manager Steve Bruce on the eve of his 1,000th game as a coach versus Tottenham, against whom, he reminded his audience, he won for the first time as Newcastle manager. To expose a manager associated by default with the misery of past failures to media questions when it is plain he cannot remain was borderline cruel.

Of course, he will carry on until told otherwise. Of course, he would love the opportunity to carry on in enriched circumstances. Who wouldn’t? “I’ll have a crack and try my utmost, who wouldn’t want this opportunity? Any manager would love to sit in my chair, so I will make a fist of it, try my best for the club.”

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I hear you, he would say that wouldn’t he? Even so if ever a manager deserved the mercy of a quick end it is Bruce. He spoke of getting through a difficult period by relying on his sense of dignity and respect. At the very least the new owners owed him the same courtesy. Instead they sent him out like a Victorian curiosity, to be gawped at and prodded for our entertainment.

For his trouble Bruce left himself open to ridicule for believing he might be considered worthy of continuing in his post, for his uncritical backing of the takeover, “let’s not forget it is a great thing that has happened for the club and the city. If it takes this great club forward, then great.” And finally for discussing Sunday’s game as if it were any other, “the team trained well this week and I hope we can win this match. We need a win to get us moving up the table.”

“We?” Not for much longer, Steve.

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