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Sports are a potential bellwether of how Middle Eastern states manage their differences

James M. Dorsey

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Renewed controversy over Saudi ownership of English Premier League club Newcastle United suggests the kind of opposition the kingdom may encounter as it bids for hosting rights to multiple global and regional sporting megaevents.

The controversy may also become a bellwether of how Saudi Arabia deals with criticism of its blitz to be front, left, and center in international sports, and in a broader context, how Middle Eastern states manage their differences in an era of reducing regional tensions.

Newcastle United fans celebrate at St James' Park following the announcement that The Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle has been approved. Picture date: Thursday October 7, 2021. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Finally, the controversy indicates that resistance to Saudi Arabia’s increasing prominence in global and Asian sports is likely to be more focused and contentious than in the case of Qatar.

It is unlikely that Britain would risk damaging relations with Saudi Arabia by rolling back the kingdom’s ownership of Newcastle United.

However, pressure to review the Premier League’s approval of the acquisition is indicative of what the Saudis can expect as they push forward with their sports blitz.

What is also clear, if Qatar’s 2022 World Cup experience is anything to go by, is that potential opposition by global human rights groups, trade unions, and some Western football associations and fan groups is likely to focus on Saudi Arabia’s positioning in Western sports and a joint Saudi-Egyptian-Greek bid for the 2030 soccer tournament rather than on the series of Asian sports tournaments the kingdom is scheduled or hopes to host.

Campaigns in the 12-year run-up to the 2022 Qatari World Cup emphasised improved migrant workers’ and LGBTQ rights. Those issues will likely be at the top of activists’ agenda, but with a twist.

Qatar World Cup 2022 opening. Photo: Getty Image

In contrast to Qatar, Saudi Arabia is vulnerable for being seemingly deceptive in various of its initiatives. This includes the Newcastle acquisition and the creation of LIV Golf, a US$405 million, 14-tournament league that competes with the PGA Tour, the primary organizer of the sport's flagship events.

Also, in contrast to Qatar, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to engage with its critics. Qatar initially involved its critics in efforts to reform rules, regulations, and laws governing rights, particularly of migrant workers.

While both Gulf states are autocracies that violate freedoms of expression and association, Qatar’s record of human rights abuses pales compared to Saudi Arabia’s.

Saudi Arabia’s image has been severely tarnished by the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the incarceration of critics, convictions to tens of years in prison for a tweet, and the pursuit of dissidents abroad.

A demonstrator holds a poster picturing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a lightened candle during a gathering outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, on October 25, 2018. Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images

At the core of the Newcastle controversy is Saudi Arabia’s assertion that the Saudi state would not control the club even though its majority shareholder is the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.

The role of the Saudi state is belied by British email traffic obtained by The Athletic in a freedom of information request and the British government’s justification for its significant redaction of the released emails.

The government said the redactions were necessary because “the disclosure of information detailing our relationship with the Saudi government could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia”.

Nevertheless, the emails show that a Saudi acquisition of Newcastle was part of talks about strategic and economic cooperation at the highest levels of the British and Saudi governments.

The Premier League ultimately approved the acquisition after receiving “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi state would not control the club. The League never disclosed what those assurances entailed.

Complicating the League’s assertion is the rejection by a US court of the insistence by lawyers representing LIV Golf that the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund and Yasir Al-Rumayyan, its chairman who also chairs Newcastle, should enjoy sovereign immunity because they are “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a sitting minister of the government”.

Governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan speaks during the fourth annual Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 27, 2021. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri/File Photo

The lawyers argued in a California case filed by the PGA in response to LIV’s lawsuit against the tour for allegedly breaking federal antitrust laws in its attempt to quash LIV in its inaugural 2022 season.

It is hard to see how the LIV Golf lawyers’ position squares with the Premier League’s assertion that the Saudi state does not control the English club.

Acknowledging implicitly Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Newscastle, lawyers for the club said there would only be a case against PIF ownership if the Saudi state used its power to intervene in the club’s affairs.

The League’s approval of the Saudi acquisition could be further called into question if Qatar revives legal efforts to force Saudi Arabia to pay US$1 billion in damages engendered as a result of piracy by a Saudi private entity of the broadcasts of the Premier League and other matches by Qatari sports broadcaster beIN.

The Saudi entity pirated the broadcasts as part of the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led 3.5-year-long diplomatic boycott of Qatar that was lifted in early 2021. beIN was banned from the kingdom during the boycott.

In response, Qatar initiated an arbitration case in London against Saudi Arabia to demand compensation. Qatar dropped the case after the boycott was lifted.

The settlement of the piracy case was a prerequisite for the Premier League’s approval of the Newcastle acquisition.

Relations between the Qatari broadcaster and the kingdom initially improved after the lifting of the boycott and Qatar’s dropping of the legal proceedings. There was even talk of Saudi Arabia taking a stake in beIN.

Those talks have since stalled and beIN, according to The Athletic, may reopen its investment arbitration case after the Saudi media ministry blocked the broadcaster’s streaming platform TOD during the 2022 Qatar World Cup’s opening week.

A revival of the legal case could raise renewed questions about Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle acquisition.

It would also serve as an indication that reduced regional tensions as a result of Middle Eastern efforts to put relations between adversaries on an even keel will not prevent differences and disputes from influencing relationships.

Ultimately whether Qatar decides to reopen the legal proceedings is likely to be a political rather than a commercial decision.

Qatar may not want to cast a shadow over the warming relations with Saudi Arabia since the lifting of the boycott which contrasts starkly with the Gulf state's cooler rapprochement with the UAE and Bahrain.

Unlike the kingdom, Bahrain and the UAE have yet to exchange ambassadors with Qatar more than two years after the boycott was lifted. This is even though Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed have exchanged visits.

Even so, the UAE is unlikely to take kindly to this month’s broadcast by Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network of a four-part documentary identifying Dubai as a money laundering and gold smuggling hub.

The UAE insists it is working to address deficiencies in its anti-money laundering regime to ensure it is removed from the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

Meeting of FATF ministers. Photo: Twitter/@FATFNews

Similarly, how Shia-majority Bahrain, long a target of Iranian agitation, handles détente with Iran in the wake of the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations is likely to be an indication of the ability of Middle Eastern nations to sustainably reduce regional tensions without resolving underlying differences.

Like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain will probably restore diplomatic relations broken off in 2016 in solidarity with the kingdom after its diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked. However, it will take much more to rebuild trust between the two countries.

Whether Qatar reopens the legal proceedings will be an early indicator of how Middle Eastern adversaries manage their differences.

Striking a different tone, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in the last year, worked to improve long-strained relations with Israel, this week warned that Israeli attacks on worshippers in Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque constituted a “red line.” Mr. Erdogan did not spell out what that could mean.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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