Football and foreign policy: confronting some uncomfortable truths

Co-authored by Professor Amelia Hadfield and Christian Turner, the following blog originally appeared on the Political Studies Association blog page:

Even in the middle of a global health pandemic, Mike Ashley has found a way to spark controversy, by bringing his contentious thirteen-year spell as the owner of Newcastle United football team to an end.

During his time as owner, Ashley (also CEO and majority owner of SportsDirect and House of Fraser) has overseen two relegations, hired and fired club legends Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, renamed St James Park after his SportsDirect empire and attempted to complete a controversial ownership arrangement with Rangers. Yet, Ashley’s most controversial moment has undoubtedly been saved for the tail end of his tenure. Barring any eleventh-hour hiccups, Newcastle United will be bought out by the Public Investment Fund, which represents the $320 billion sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).[1] 

It’s a move that has sparked vigorous debate, given Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record and high-profile missteps in the last three years. Indeed, the transfer itself hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm of those involved in the transaction, including Newcastle United fans, excited at the prospect of Saudi Arabia’s petro-funds. At present, the opportunity to transform into a European heavyweight by joining other clubs that have benefited from generous international owners including Chelsea (Russia), Manchester City (UAE) and Paris St Germain (Qatar) remains the clear incentive, rather than the geo-political credentials of the new owners.[2]  

Acqisition and Attribution 

From a foreign policy perspective, the question is an interesting one. Is the Saudi takeover a step too far? Or is it a timely opportunity for Britain, and other like-minded states, to finally grasp the nettle, framed by past and present questions regarding foreign ownership of strategic assets (Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, 5G network, airports) and cultural resources alike. If so, will it produce a mindset, forcing the UK  – both public and private sectors alike – to deal with this uncomfortable truth?

 The last decade has witnessed a soft-power arms race, based on leveraging acquisition while reducing attribution. In other words, buying up assets while lessening or even obscuring the structures and obligations of ownership. What’s interesting is how culture and sport have figured largely in this trend, alongside civil and military technology and strategic assets. 

inspired by the soft power prowess of China’s largely successful staging of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, a number of Middle Eastern states have begun to spend significant capital on projects that grant them access to key dimensions of the international sporting community. 

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar were first off the blocks, with their purchases of Manchester City and PSG, transforming one-time has-beens into the elite clubs of Britain and France respectively (UAE having invested around £1 billio in Manchester City in the past 12 years). If football ownership represents the platinum league, league sponsorship offers the next best deal; Gasprom for example sponsoring Schalke to the tune of €20-30 million a year. In addition to owning or sponsoring is the option of hosting. After purchasing PSG,

Qatar stunned the world football community by winning the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. The outcomes however have been mixed. Despite the inaugural regional location for the World Cup in December, the bidding process came under intense scrutiny in terms of the global governance of sport, with FIFA’s Executive Committee accused of rampant corruption[3]and PSG’s own President, Nasser Al-Khelaifi facing corruption charges levelled by Swiss-based FIFA later this year.[4]

For Saudi Arabia, it is also time to get in the game. Steps have already been taken in recent years to help soften the image of the regime notorious for its use of Sharia law to maintain one of the world’s strictest of regimes.[5]In 2015, the young MBS emerged as the surprise choice of Minister of Defence, a highly significant role for a nation that imports large amounts of British and American military equipment.[6]Two years later, MBS cemented his position as heir-apparent to the Saudi throne by being named Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister, and putting his new powers to work in some surprising areas. In June 2018 for example, Saudi Arabia repealed the provision banning women from driving vehicles.[7]Under MBS, further changes ensued, including restricting someaspects of the power of the religious police and abolishing flogging as a form of criminal punishment. Saudi Arabia attempted to further burnish its embryonic credentials by hosting high profile sporting events, including the boxing rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz held on 7thDecember 2019 in a stadium assembled in weeks.[8]

Such changes however are as yet superficial. Despite shifts by MBS in some areas, these remain in stark contrast to the ongoing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including a crackdown on protestors, and the dramatic removal from power of several members of the Government this year, including several members of his own royal family.[9]Regionally, Saudi Arabia continues to struggle with its neighbours, from the ongoing trade blockade with Qatar, and endless schisms with Israel and Iran, including the deeply ruinous proxy war with Yemen.  The nadir of MBS’ rule however took place in October 2018.  The Washington Postjournalist Jamal Khashoggi  – a long-standing and determined critic of the Saudi government – disappeared after entering the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain documents relating to his upcoming marriage. Despite vigorous denials from Saudi staff and government officials, it became increasingly clear that Khashoggi had been brutally murdered and dismembered in the Saudi embassy in the hours after his entrance to the consulate. Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb admitted the murder was premediated on the 25thOctober,[10]followed by an announcement by the CIA in mid-November that the order for Khashoggi’s murder had come from MBS himself. It then emerged in January 2020, that The Washington Post’s owner Jeff Bezos had his phone hacked by Saudi Arabia in the period leading up to Khashoggi’s murder, with the malware itself traced to MBS’s own phone.[11]The Khashoggi affair has confirmed in the most brutal and public way the persistence of an inherently darker side to Saudi Arabian governance in general and MBS in particular. 

From football teams to football tournaments, recent issues with Saudi Arabia require ongoing critical debate among scholars and decision-makers alike as to the true limits of engaging with authoritarian regimes, and the very real price of such engagement (much of which has been expertly covered in the recent three-part ‘House of Saud’ [12]series on BBC iplayer). For some, the present “Art of the Deal” era, from the US President and beyond, suggests that everyone and everything has its price. Indeed, when President Trump was asked about possible sanctions on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder, his response was unsurprisingly blunt: “We don’t like it even a little bit. But whether or not we should stop $110bn from being spent in this country … That would not be acceptable to me”.[13]

For others, holding the line means an even-handed approach to the full normative spectrum, not pick’n mix approach employed by the Trump administration which alternates between cultivating and aggravating China over trade while remaining largely silent on the ongoing human rights protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019.[14]From this perspective, it’s as much the responsibility of third-party governments to set limits on such engagement, from strategic assets to hosting sporting events. 

In this respect, Britain has not exactly covered itself in glory in its relationships with various authoritarian regimes. Russian and eastern European funds have washed into the UK since the early 1990s, and London in particular, with very little oversight or response, largely via self-made post-Soviet oligarchs whose extraordinary wealth arose from the lucrative privatisation of former Soviet state institutions, from infrastructure to oil and gas. Few, if any, questions were asked about the origins of such wealth or the geopolitical connections its holders leveraged on both British and Russian interests. Only in 2002, did the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA) take effect as the UK’s chief anti-money laundering (AML) legislation, defining and regulating those activities that permit AML and the acquisition and distribution of ensuing criminal proceeds. Other regions and issues continue to complicate UK foreign policy. In 2019, the Court of Appeals blocked the sale of arms from Britain to Saudi Arabia that could be feasibly used by the Gulf state in its proxy war in Yemen. Despite this, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss admitted a mere three months later that the order had been broken no fewer than three times.[15]More recently, Britain’s relationship with China has come under fire over the contentious decision to permit Chinese technology company Huawei to contribute in supplying the UK’s 5G network, with Downing Street largely silent on the issue, despite launching a review.[16]

Returning to the world of sport, the big stories dominate. In 2003, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea FC, transforming a club known primarily for the quality of its football hooliganism to London’s preeminent football club. During the same period, Abramovich poured millions into London based properties, despite clear links between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin against a background of alleged corruption during his post-Soviet business career. Crunch point was reached in August 2012, when the High Court witnessed Abramovich admit publicly that he had paid former business partner, Boris Berezovsky $5 million for his “political patronage”, despite (or more likely because of) the latter’s having close ties to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government.[17]Even at this stage, the UK Government appeared reluctant to act, even as Abramovich openly continued to send hundreds of millions to Russia in preparation for its own turn at playing global host for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and again for the 2018 Football World Cup. It was only in the aftermath of the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March, 2018 and the subsequent downturn in UK-Russian relations did the Home Office delayed the renewal of Abramovich’s British visa, with him later taking Israeli citizenship as a result.[18]

The upshot is that Britain has arrived at something of a crossroads in foreign policy terms. Despite its uneasy relations with regional powerhouses like Saudi Arabia and Russia, the UK has largely promoted a value-oriented approach to foreign affairs, striving to support key norms, from human rights, democratisation and the rule of law, as so expertly articulated in 1997 by Labour’s Robin Cook, in his capacity as Foreign Secretary.[19]However, given disruptions of all sorts, from Brexit to Covid-19 and beyond, a “money talks” approach may come to dominate both Britain’s foreign economic and diplomatic attitudes, in terms of investments and allies, respectively. On the one hand, Britain is a committed normative player, and generous donor of overseas aid. On the other, the corporate social responsibility ethos of UK plc is less than squeaky clean, as the second highest recipient of foreign investment. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s recent announcement to merge the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the aim of strategically connecting development policy with foreign policy, may see British overseas aid conflate with British national and trade interests in a way that ironically diminishes its overall international clout and reputation. The decision has been roundly criticised, with the Chair of the International Development Select Committee Sarah Champion insisting that “aid is humanitarian, foreign policy is political”.[20]Tweaking ministry titles is one thing. Actions are another. Despite some attempts to clean an up its regulatory act, Britain still appears to be doing too little to dissociate itself from authoritarian regimes who flout routinely established global norms. With the pre-Brexit recalibration of foreign affairs and humanitarian goals, Britain may be politicising, even securitising its own normative structure, diminishing in turn its ability to effect normative transformation aboard and ethical improvements at home.  

Some may regard as fanciful the connection between football and foreign policy. The Newcastle United takeover by Saudi Arabia however is important, because it represents a distinct trend that shows no signs of change. From within, this trend suggests that MBS and Saudi Arabia more broadly wishes to utilise sport teams, brands, and hosting opportunities alike to distract from his regime’s preferred approach. From without, there is scope to compare different forms of protest against ‘football foreign policy’. Indeed, the irony is that on human rights grounds, despite numerous protests from Amnesty international and Khashoggi’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz,[21]the takeover will likely succeed. However, it may very well fail on grounds of commercial impact, after complaints from numerous large broadcasters, including Sky Sports and BEIN Sports, over longstanding piracy claims over televised Premier League matches in Saudi Arabia.[22]Indeed, the very latest update is that ‘big media’ is now determined to make its impact, and in this case, American media, with media mogul Henry Mauriss[23]upping the offer to £350 million, determined to get in quick and exert control before next season.  For this to happen, the stalled £300 million Saudi-led takeover deal brokered by Mike Ashley (still entirely subject to approval by the Premier League) would have to collapse.  

For Newcastle United fans, the takeover is doubly complex. On the one hand, it represents the end of the roundly unpopular ownership of Mike Ashley and the opportunity for millions to be invested within the club. On the other, concerns will continue to hang over the club regarding its links with Saudi Arabia, with the club suffering possible reputational hits in the future. What cost sport? As Miller et al argued back in 2001, sport was undergoing five processes, including globalisation, governmentalisation and commodification.[24]How to balance domestic commercial propriety with global norms of sport? As Joseph S. Nye Jr. argues in his most recent book, Do Morals Matter?“moral accountability is a central part of what it means to be a human being”. Football included. 














[14]At the height of the 2019 protests, and under significant pressure to indicate US disapproval, Trump did however sign into law legislation backing the pro-democracy protesters and threatening sanctions on officials from both Hong Kong and China responsible for clear human rights breaches:









[23]Mauriss is CEO of US-based Clear TV, which provides a range of broadcasting services for airports and hospitals.

[24]Miller, T., Lawrence, G., McKay, J., & Rowe, D. (2001). Globalization and sport. Playing the world. London: Sage.