Even in the hall of football infamy, Saudi Arabia represents a new low
Proponents whose point of view on the horrific case is roughly summed up as “anyone but Mike Ashley” are conditioned to dismiss this as an insignificant ethical warning. Except that Khashoggi’s fiancÃ©e, Hatice Cengiz, considers him anything but. She pleaded with the Premier League not to acquiesce to the Saudis, telling Telegraph Sport: “It’s horrible to hear that the crown prince is about to get what he wants: to wash his reputation and sully the name Sport.”
You can hope that the testimony of Ms Cengiz, a woman whose life has been ruined by a terrible state-sponsored crime, will resonate with Newcastle fans who did not become apologists for leaders of the United Kingdom overnight. Riyadh. You are sure that would shake up the Premier League, which demands that future owners pass the appropriate person tests, but still have to push through this takeover. And you certainly hope that would deter journalists from offering specious justifications for a regime that murdered one of their own.
But the sad reality is that the Saudis’ PR campaign appears to be working. An argument has already been made this week that the only tool they need to push back human rights concerns is a decent communication strategy. It is an abysmal vision of myopic. Any brutal tyranny can whitewash its image through an expensive PR firm: For years, Bell Pottinger, since disgraced and dismantled for stoking racial tensions in South Africa, would gladly serve as image specialists for dictators like the Belarusian Alexander Lukashenko and the Chilean Augusto Pinochet.
As they covered Anthony Joshua’s ‘Clash on the Dunes’ with Andy Ruiz Jnr in Diriyah in December 2019, PRs were eager for reporters to sit down with Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal, the minister. Saudi Sportsman, so he can describe super-combat as part of a grand plan to develop grassroots sport in the country. This is all very well, but the end of the game of using sports to cover up barbarism is seamless. You would expect this type of cynicism in boxing, where Eddie Hearn has long put aside any moral dilemmas to negotiate the best possible contracts for his fighters. This is also expected in Formula 1, where Bernie Ecclestone – admittedly jokingly – did not rule out holding races in Syria or North Korea as long as the price was right.
It may be an endearing and innocent sight, but there was once some optimism that football could hold itself at a higher level. After all, La Liga president Javier Tebas claimed last year that he was not ready to let his teams play in Saudi Arabia, refusing to participate in any “laundering” of human rights atrocities. For Newcastle, the math is a little different. If sales to the Saudis are good enough for the British government, and if the death of even a minor member of the House of Saud forces the British royal representation to the funeral, why should football be a special case? It is unfortunately this story that trumps any thought of the Khashoggi family’s disgust for what Newcastle seem and the Premier League seem ready to do. Even in the hall of football infamy, it’s the most dismal Faustian pact to date.