Why comparisons between Sheffield United and Newcastle are wrong despite Saudi Arabian links

It was inevitable, given the nationality of their owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, that folk would look to draw Sheffield United back into the complex web of sportswashing, soft power and geopolitics following recent developments in Newcastle; where Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is part of a consortium attempting to purchase the city’s football club.

Thursday, 23rd April 2020, 6:00 pm

But attempts to draw comparisons between St James’ Park and Bramall Lane, or use the composition of United’s board as a way of dismissing concerns about the Kingdom’s potential entrance into the world of Premier League football, are misguided, misinformed and so far wide of the mark Billy Sharp would bow his head in shame if one of his shots on goal followed the same flight path.

Put simply, United are owned by a private individual. Newcastle, if Mike Ashley relinquishes control and hands over the keys, will effectively be controlled by a state with the deal’s broker - Amanda Staveley - and the Reuben brothers as its minority partners. The differences, both politically and financially, are stark.

Speaking from his home in South Yorkshire earlier this week, where he is isolating during the coronavirus pandemic, United manager Chris Wilder inadvertently touched on the latter. Describing how the recruitment budget placed at his disposal requires him to identify up and coming rather than established talent, the 52-year-old told journalists: “Look at the wealth of some of the owners in this division and it blows you away sometimes. Look at what’s happening in the North-East for example and look at the numbers people are talking about.

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“We have to do it in a different way. We’ve managed to do that in the past and it has to be our aim going forward.”

Steve Bruce, Wilder’s opposite number 100 miles or so to the north, won’t be searching for a niche in the market if the Saudis get there way. He’ll simply be looking forward to spending his new bosses’ billions. Assuming he gets the chance, given reports that Mauricio Pochettino and Massimo Allegri could be approached about succeeding the former Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa chief if it is decided a more glamorous figure is required to front the project.

Although Prince Abdullah’s royal status undoubtedly brought certain privileges, a study of his career reveals someone whose business interests were built largely from scratch rather than being bestowed upon him by the Middle Eastern country’s rulers. Despite clearly being a wealthy man, splitting his time between London, Paris and Switzerland when he isn’t at home in Beverley Hills, the engineering graduate does not have access to money being channeled by the Saudi Arabian government. Indeed, after scrutinised during last summer’s High Court battle with former United chairman and co-owner Kevin McCabe, it became abundantly clear that revenues he had either raised or attempted to raise back in his homeland had been sourced from fellow businesspeople. Not the sovereign wealth fund.

Indeed, it is known to have frustrated some of those involved in United at the time that Prince Abdullah did not align the club to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030; a strategic framework designed to reduce its dependence on oil and diversify the economy.

A general view of Bramall Lane, the home of Premier League club Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Newcastle, however, would effectively become the plaything of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and heir to the throne, if Ashley accepts Staveley’s proposal. It would bring huge benefits in terms of funding but plenty of disadvantages too, with Amnesty International calling upon the PL to block the takeover after expressing grave concerns about human rights in Saudi and Bein Sports, a rights-holder based in Qatar, whose relationship with Riyadh is strained, also demanding action. (It speaks volumes about morality within English football that their concerns are likely to cause more alarm at the competition’s HQ than those of AI, whose UK head of campaigns has described the move to acquire Newcastle as an attempt to “use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football as a PR tool to distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record.”

Felix Jakens has also accused the Saudis of a “blatant whitewash” over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at their embassy in Istanbul and of helping to launch “disgraceful” and “indiscriminate attacks on homes and hospitals” during the war in Yemen.

When the PL decides if they should pass its fit and proper persons test, it would be akin to declaring every British citizen responsible for the actions of their government over the past 10 years, regardless of their voting record, if Prince Abdullah’s presence at United is used as an excuse not to investigate whether the concerns of AI, Bein and others are legitimate or not. Likewise, the fact Prince Abdullah once served as the Kingdom’s Minister for Sport is an irrelevance. He no longer holds this position and, when he was in post, purposefully relinquished his titles at United so as not to blur the lines.

Intriguingly, the Saudi’s interest in Newcastle comes at a time when it has emerged the nation’s finance minister is cutting funding to its sports clubs as part of austerity measures designed to address a budget deficit. This is not insignificant news, with Al-Hilal, Saudi’s leading club and where Prince Abdullah once served as chairman, among those in receipt of state funds. Nor is is insignificant, as one leading analyst of the region’s sporting scene opined yesterday, that “recent KSA sports policy has focused on nurturing domestic assets.”

H.R.H Prince Abdullah bin Mosa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud listens as Chief Executive Stephen Bettis speaks at a press conference introducing the new owners of Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“Fan culture in KSA football is strong, matches often well attended,” he added. “If (the) country's politicians either engage in or else sanction spending on overseas football clubs, won't be well received among KSA fans. MBS (Mohammed bin Salman) has long sought to cultivate support among such people.”

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A Saudi-backed £300m ($368 million) takeover of Newcastle United is nearing completion at a time when the rest of the football industry is on its knees due to the economic crisis caused by coronavirus. For Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that will reportedly take an 80 percent stake in the Premier League club, the crisis presents an opportunity.: GRAHAM STUART / AFP) (Photo by GRAHAM STUART/AFP via Getty Images