Why comparisons between Sheffield United and Newcastle United takeover are wrong despite Saudi Arabia links
It was inevitable, given the nationality of their owner HRH Prince Abdullah, 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.
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 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 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.
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 being scrutinised the 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.
In fact, 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.
Newcastle, however, effectively become the plaything of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and heir to the throne.
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.
It speaks volumes about morality within English football that a deal brokered with Premier League rights holders BeIN concerns over alleged piracy caused more alarm at the competition’s HQ than those of Amnesty International 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.
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 Amnesty International 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.
A version of this article was first published in April 2020