What should we do to fight back against sportswashing?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 3

The massive Saudi investment into football this summer has brought increased urgency to debate about sportswashing. In the previous two parts of this discussion, I first set out why there is reason to be morally concerned about Saudi involvement in the sport (and sport in general, more broadly), then argued that ethically we should be more concerned to think about complicity with a sportswashing exercise, as opposed to just focussing on hypocrisy and whether individuals are totally consistent with their expressed beliefs.

Now I want to put forward some suggestions that follow from this approach as to what fans can do in response to this issue.

Before getting into that, however, I think it is helpful to clarify what the general guiding aims of action should be. To do that, let’s first think about what the aims of sportswashing are: states engage in sportswashing as a means to extend their influence through an incredibly high-profile area of our social and cultural lives; their emphasis is on creating positive reputational impact for their state, while distracting from wrongdoing. In the process, they make participants within sporting institutions (not only players, but also other staff and a wider community of fans) complicit within a cover-up exercise.

The sportswasher, therefore, wants fans to be so enthused by the sporting spectacle that they ignore any wider concerns. Pushing-back against sportswashing requires us as fans to not be compliant with this wish.

What to do if an authoritarian state buys your team

So, let’s suppose the team you support becomes the subject of a takeover by a regime looking to engage in sportswashing. How should you respond?

Firstly, let’s outline something I don’t think you have to do. You do not have to sever all ties in order to be able to have and raise concerns. I put the case in the previous post that absolute purity cannot be demanded as a precondition for criticism: we should not be so concerned about hypocrisy as to say that you cannot voice concern about your club’s ownership while still attending games, or engaging in other forms of support for the team. It is absolutely understandable if some fans come to decide that they find some forms of ongoing association with the club too much to bear, but given just how deep within our identities football affiliation can sit, it seems unreasonable to demand this of any dissatisfied fans.

We do, though, need to retain some sense of perspective. As fans, we can easily become prone to motivated reasoning, to thinking that what is good for our team’s prospects is just good, all things considered. We can easily convince ourselves, therefore, that there is nothing in those latest allegations against our star striker or that supposed breaches of financial regulations by our club are simply an attempt by clubs to bring us down. Or that the people pumping money into our club are decent, reformist modernisers, so any talk of human rights abuses must be overblown.

But, we have a responsibility as fans not to become cheerleaders for our club’s owners. Don’t engage in culturally dubious sartorial tributes; don’t chant the name of your Russian owner during a minute’s applause for Ukraine; don’t jump onto social media or online comment spaces to shout down potential critique of your owners; don’t attend international games of the state that backs your club. The symbols and interests of the state that owns your club are not your symbols and interests — don’t take on the role of a footsoldier for the sportswashing exercise.

Newcastle fan in black and white Saudi themed dress, waves a Saudi flag

The bigger point here is that we never owe loyalty to the owners of our club. While it is often a tribal reflex for football fans to simply defend everything about our club from outside criticism, we have a responsibility to fight against that urge here. It is not disloyal to be open-minded in considering potential charges against the club’s owners — if there are ties to human rights abuse, it is not disloyal to acknowledge them. The club is a separate entity from its legal owners; we can continue to embrace one while honestly conceding deep concerns about the other. (This is, incidentally, something fans rarely have an issue with when it comes to bad owners: Manchester United fans have consistently maintained an antipathy towards the Glazers, in the same way the Newcastle fans were resistant for years towards Mike Ashley.)

How should other fans respond?

But sportswashing is not just a concern for fans of clubs owned by states with dubious records, but poses a challenge to the integrity of the sport as a whole. So how should broader concerns be responded to? I’m going to start by thinking, in particular, about the Saudi Pro League, as that was the main prompt for these posts.

One of the big things I think fans should aim to do is to avoid deepening their involvement or complicity with sportswashing exercises. While this makes cases like the takeover of a beloved club difficult, when it comes to the money being thrown at the Saudi Pro League, I think the response we should take is far easier. You (I presume, at least) have no existing ties to this competition or to clubs within it; don’t start to follow Saudi football. You were not interested in catching the Al-Hilal highlights last season, you didn’t follow Al-Ahli on the socials, you didn’t buy your child an Al-Nassr shirt, so don’t do any of those things now. Don’t watch the matches (which DAZN recently announced they would be showing), don’t care about what is happening there. The Pro League’s success cannot be based solely on players joining its clubs, if fans do not allow the attention to be sufficiently drawn to sustain it. Don’t extend your own involvement with Saudi sportswashing by dipping your toe in the water.

Broadening the above point, we should not allow sportswashers to simply become part of the landscape, a normal feature of football like any other team owner or league operator. They want us talking about the football and not the other stuff, the bad stuff; they want positive associations. So we have a responsibility to try to prevent that from happening. Don’t ever get bored of raising (or even just hearing) the human rights concerns. Players who choose to play in Saudi should be asked awkward questions. As should people connected with Man City and Newcastle United. Pundits and journalists should raise concerns on a regular basis. I have no issue with rival fans using chants, banners or social media to keep issues in the public eye.
I know that fans often look to football as an escape from the more serious concerns of life, so may not want to keep talking about or hearing about factors beyond the game. But, refusing to let our attention shift totally away from these broader factors is a price worth paying for preventing the sport from being entirely colonised by state money and the political concerns it brings.

Banner shown by Crystal Palace fans in 2021, criticising the Premier League for approving the Newcastle takeover

So far, the measures have mostly been about avoiding any further deepening of complicity, but what steps are there to actually reversing the issues we already face? The problem here is that there are few steps that are actually open to fans that are likely to make a real difference. The most important actions that could be taken to control the ability of state funds to shape football are only available to regulators, in the form of football authorities (FIFA, UEFA, individual football leagues and associations) or, in the case of involvement in European leagues, lawmakers in our parliaments.
What fans can do, though, is to make sure their opinions are heard by these regulators. Write to your local MP, sign petitions, support campaigns by human rights organisations, encourage others to do the same. These can feel like fruitless gestures. Most of us will also have little faith in either football’s governing bodies or our political representatives actually doing the right thing — most will be happy to roll the red carpet out to oil wealth so as to avoid scaring away potential investment. But if we are unhappy about the sport we love becoming little more than a PR tool for abusive regimes, changes to rules or new forms of regulation still offer our best hope for resistance.

So, what regulation is needed?

Preventing sportswashing in established European leagues feels far more feasible than stopping the Saudi Pro League from making giant offers to big name players (and, more likely than not, those players accepting those deals). But what sort of regulations should we be calling for?

One possibility would be that nothing new is required, all that is needed is for a more stringent application of existing rules. Leagues have ownership rules and typically retain the ability to block takeovers if they have doubts about prospective owners, which could easily be used as a mechanism to prevent European teams becoming used for sportswashing purposes. Indeed, in March of this year the Premier League added an explicit stipulation that proven involvement in human rights violations is a “disqualifying event” within the fit and proper persons test for owners. They have the power to stop abusers taking control of clubs.

However, there are several reasons why this is unlikely to prove effective as a guard against sportswashing, as the Newcastle takeover might be used to illustrate. The humans rights element was not present within the ownership tests at the point the takeover was concluded, but even if it had been, it seems hard to imagine a scenario where the takeover would have been blocked. The first issue is the difficulty of picking up on concerns about institutional links with a test that is designed to assess individuals. That is, it can be easy for all of the main individuals associated with an ownership bid — such as, in Newcastle United’s case, PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan — to personally be totally free of any evidence of connection to any form of human rights abuse. However PIF, as the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, possesses a direct institutional link between it and the Saudi state (irrespective of the supposed legally-binding assurances to the contrary received by the Premier League), which does therefore create an institutional implication between the money behind the Newcastle takeover and every single state official within Saudi Arabia, which therefore also carries a connection to widespread and well documented human rights abuses.

Yet, even if it were possible to find the evidence to link the specific figures involved to human rights abuse, the next potential pitfall is that acting upon it may be viewed, in political terms, as a potential embarrassment or strategic error. A high profile accusation of human rights abuse or the blocking of a strategically significant investment deal could be something that causes an upset that is felt to be a political or diplomatic problem. This actually appears to have been a worry for the UK Foreign Office during the complicated Newcastle takeover process, as the text of emails uncovered by The Athletic demonstrate:

It’s not for HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) to intervene in buying/selling football clubs. But HMG is not neutral about UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a crucial and valuable relationship with an important partner, regionally and globally. The purchase of Newcastle United by KSA’s sovereign wealth fund would be a valuable boost to the relationship and signal of intent for further Saudi investment in the north east.

Reports also suggest Boris Johnson, possibly at the direct prompting of MBS, was active behind the scenes in pushing for the Newcastle takeover to go ahead.

Once it is a state seeking to purchase a football club, the matter becomes one of geopolitical significance, affecting trade and security relationships, and shaping far wider investment discussions. This makes it harder — although, it must be noted, far from impossible — to make an individual decision to oppose an ownership bid, without this action having much wider consequences.

Here we come to the crux of the matter: states are inherently political entities, so their involvement as football owners makes governance of the sport or enforcement of ethical rules (or, indeed, other rules such as Financial Fair Play that seek to protect a measure of competitive balance) that much harder. As well as turbo-charging the processes of commodification and financialisation that fans already worry are ruining the game, it creates the sort of complicity that these posts have highlighted as the key ethical concern — football becomes implicated within various state-led propaganda projects.

In some respects, with Manchester City and Newcastle already as precedents, we are already too late to stop this. However, I still think that if we want to find the most effective means to push back against sportswashing by keeping it out of European football, the easiest mechanism would be through the implementation of rules or laws that prevent the (either direct or indirect) ownership of football clubs by states or their sovereign wealth funds. This is something the admirable NUFC Against Sportswashing group have campaigned for, with their site providing a useful model letter for any fan who wishes to take action by contacting their political representative.

The other front in resistance to sportswashing in club football would be in striving to keep the Saudi Pro League outside and separate from top-level competitions. There are already whispers of attempts to secure a place for Saudi clubs within the Champions League but, should this be unsuccessful, you could easily imaging attempts to collaborate with disgruntled European giants (Barcelona and Real Madrid being prime candidates) on some form of breakaway rival, akin to the LIV Tour in golf.

Holding fast to a strict division between Saudi-backed competitions and established European leagues is vital for preventing the success of their sportswashing exercise. At present, although European clubs cannot match the spending power of the Saudis, they retain two major advantages in attracting the world’s best players: one is that their leagues are the most historically established, with storied clubs that are regarded as being the place where footballing careers and reputations are made; the second builds on this idea in that, therefore, European leagues are seen to provide the peak of club competition, capturing global attention to its fullest, so moving anywhere else will potentially be a hindrance to a player’s standing or their ability to continue to be selected for international competition. If, however, the divide were to become blurred — if you could take the money offered by Al-Hilal, yet still be seen regularly playing matches at the very highest level in the Champions League — any hope of preventing a Saudi takeover of top-level club football seems immediately diminished.

Do I have confidence that, when the time comes, regulators or legislators will prevent this? When there is a huge pile of investment money at stake in exchange for a place in the Champions League or for backing a new global competition format do I really expect them to hold out? I have doubts that they will but, for fans who wish to prevent the further complicity of our sport with abusive authoritarian regimes, doing whatever we can to hold the football authorities and our political representatives to account, pushing them to do the right thing, remains our best hope.

Jordan Henderson and why not to get hung-up on hypocrisy

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 2

Of all the footballers to have made the choice to go to play in the Saudi Pro League, one has attracted way more criticism than any other: former Liverpool and Sunderland midfielder, Jordan Henderson. The reason for receipt of this opprobrium? Because Henderson is judged to be a hypocrite, who has jettisoned principles he had previously endorsed, most notably in his calls for football to show greater support for LGBTQ+ people within the sport, in order to pick up a massive pay packet in a country where sexuality is strictly controlled through the use of criminal law.

In this post, I want to explain why I think the emphasis upon hypocrisy, and in turn the singling-out of Henderson among players moving to Saudi Arabia, is not the best way to respond to the ethical issues raised by the raised Saudi profile within football. In short, I think this lets others off too easily, while discouraging players from taking positive stances in future.

This post is the second of three assessing ethical issues raised by the spending of Saudi Pro League clubs. The first outlined the reasons I think we have for being worried about the source of this money. The third will examine how best we might respond.

Is Henderson a hypocrite, or are those who criticise him hypocrites?

The charge of hypocrisy against Henderson is relatively easy to substantiate. He has, up to this point, been one of football’s more vocal supporters of LGBTQ+ rights, frequently wearing rainbow laces and a rainbow captain’s armband while actively reaching out to fans on social media with messages of inclusion and support. In a set of programme notes in 2021, he made the following statement:

I do believe when you see something that is clearly wrong and makes another human being feel excluded you should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. You also have a responsibility to educate yourself better around the challenges they experience. That’s where my own position on homophobia in football is rooted. Before I’m a footballer, I’m a parent, a husband, a son, a brother and a friend to the people in my life who matter so much to me. The idea that any of them would feel excluded from playing or attending a football match, simply for being and identifying as who they are, blows my mind. The idea they’d have to hide from it to be accepted? But that’s exactly how too many members of the LGBT+ community feel. We know this because they tell us. So we should listen, support them and work to make it better.

These are admirable sentiments. And, hearing them from a footballer — a group often characterised as mercenary, materialistic, shallow or unthinking — offered the hopeful possibility that football might be capable of being viewed as something other than a moral deadweight upon wider culture, that footballers could be seen as people to emulate, not just for their glamorous lifestyles, but also for their ability to inspire change.

His move to Al-Ettifaq, therefore, with all of the heavy-handed exclusions that characterise life in Saudi Arabia, has been widely characterised as a direct contradiction of the noble positions he previously advocated, a hypocritical betrayal of those who once looked to him as an ally.

Condemnation has not been universal, however. In an interview with Talksport last week, England manager Gareth Southgate held back from criticising the move:

It’s not for me to judge any individual whether they’re in football or in any other industry. I don’t think he’s changing his view on what he believes in. So now we’re in a really complex world where, what are we saying, nobody should go to Newcastle? Should nobody work for companies that the Saudis own in London or should nobody buy oil from the Saudis? I think it’s very complicated.

In many ways, this is a politician’s answer — Southgate avoids ever stating his own position, instead relying upon reader to infer it from the intended answer to the rhetorical questions (is it actually totally implausible to answer ‘yes’ to any of them..?). But what is also implied through these questions is a counter-charge of hypocrisy back towards critics of the move: your standing to be critical of Henderson’s inconsistency is made out to be dependent upon also taking a hard-line stance against any involvement with Saudi money. On this view, without insisting on the severing of any possible Saudi ties, critics are themselves being hypocritical.

Another version of this charge is the argument that most, if not all, critics would jump at the chance of an occupational move that came with a trebling (or more) of their income, that complaints over human rights are the preserve of onlookers, armchair pontificators with nothing at stake. As Henderson’s case reveals, this critique goes, although we might like to pretend we are all upstanding and principled, everyone has their price.

Henderson’s hypocrisy

There are problems, though, with any ethical discussion of the situation simply taking place at the level of competing accusations of hypocrisy, which can be seen by taking a closer look at both sides on the argument above.

With regard to Henderson himself, you get the impression that many critics would not have been so vocal if it had not been for his past record of taking progressive political stances. Criticism is not extended to other players choosing to take Saudi offers, nor to other English figures (such as Steven Gerrard) taking Pro League roles. In a comment piece by former West Ham player Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out as gay after his playing career ended, an explicit line is drawn:

I want to differentiate. Riyad Mahrez, Karim Benzema and others have gone to Saudi Arabia this summer. It is a global market and players always think they only have a career of 10-15 years and want to make as much money as possible… It’s their choice and I don’t criticise it because they have not consciously stood up and said: “We support the LGBTQ+ community.”

This is typical of the what we have seen: there is a subtle criticism of other players here, but it is clear that Henderson is being viewed as much worse and a much more worthy target for criticism.

Certainly, the hypocrisy is a problem. But I think a bigger problem is the simple fact that, by participating in what amounts to a large-scale PR campaign on behalf of Saudi Arabia, he is making himself complicit with a state with such a dubious human rights record, irrespective of whether he had expressed a commitment towards inclusive causes. Over-inflating the significance of his inconsistency risks making us lose sight of this wider problem, while potentially leading us to forget that every other player who chose to accept a Saudi offer is likewise making themselves a participant in this propaganda exercise.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we are perfectly entitled to think of Henderson as worse than the others. But it is possible to reframe the way we think about the situation so as to prevent losing sight of the fact that anyone going to play in Saudi is doing something dubious: any player that moves to play in the Pro League should be thought of as committing a wrong for making themselves complicit in human rights abuses; but we have grounds for being more disappointed in Henderson, as he had given previous evidence of being concerned enough to speak out against injustice, which may have led us to expect better of him.

Another problem in making so much depend on what Henderson has previously said is that the likely chilling effect this may have on other players, incentivising them to simply stay quiet in future, rather than ever risking speaking out on political or ethical concerns. If displaying any sort of conscience is simply going to invite further scrutiny or criticism down the line, or to make some future career moves more difficult, maybe other players will take the lesson that it is better to keep shtum and act as an amoral mercenary from the outset.

It feels better, to me at least, for us to focus on criticising the choice of players to make themselves more complicit with the Saudi regime’s efforts to realign its image, rather than just assessing whether this goes against any previous statements they have made.

Are we hypocrites for criticising?

But, here’s where the other side of the hypocrisy equation hits. Who are we to judge the choices of another person? In making a choice like this, they are able to access sums of money that will be life-changing for themselves and their family for many years to come — wouldn’t we all take the same chance if we were in their shoes? Equally, aren’t we all already tied into chains of political and economic interaction with Saudi Arabia (or other similarly dubious states), making us inconsistent hypocrites for focussing so heavily on footballers choosing to play in the Pro League?

Firstly, let’s concede one way in which this response has a point. Almost all of our lives are already inexorably entangled with the functioning of the Saudi state. The source of its funds, the vast oil deposits that lie underneath its territory, is dependent on the vast global demand for oil-based products — irrespective of the fact that the UK imports very little oil directly from the kingdom, our consumption still contributes to its economic significance as a resource. Meanwhile, our government has, for decades, been happy to sign deals supplying arms to the Saudi state. As Southgate points out in his quotes above, beyond Newcastle United, the PIF sovereign wealth has large stakes in many high profile consumer brands: Disney, Boeing, Uber, Microsoft and Starbucks are all reported to have received PIF investment.

I think it is incorrect, though, to think that our standing to comment on Saudi football involvement is dependent upon being absolutely purified of any contact with PIF money. We live in such a globalised, interconnected world that the very idea of drawing a clean line of separation between any of us and any Saudi interests seems nigh on impossible. If purity demands that I have to avoid Microsoft products, this means I have to find a job that does not ever involve consulting an Excel spreadsheet, using a Windows PC, handling Outlook email, taking a Skype call. Even if I manage that, how do I handle the task of ensuring my own purity while shopping for products, unless I can know things like the provenance of the oil from which the plastics within them were derived, or can uncover exactly how the container ships or lorries that carried them to market were fuelled?

Purity, being free from any sort of connection with Saudi interests, is a mirage. Which means any demand that, unless we are totally pure, we are hypocrites for commenting on Henderson (or Steven Gerrard, or Cristiano Ronaldo, or Riyad Mahrez, or Newcastle United) seems utterly implausible and again pushes towards a football scene where fewer people feel able to voice criticism. Southgate was right to note that we live in a really complex world. But that means it is wrongheaded to think that a simplistic picture of the moral situation, such as that you must be totally pure and uncorrupted to have an opinion, will help us to navigate that complexity.

The gist of my argument here is that hypocrisy is not really helpful as the main tool of our evaluation, as we are all, to some extent, unavoidably hypocritical: the modern world forces associations and connections upon us to things like human rights abuse (or, in other contexts, worker exploitation or environmental degradation) that go against our ideas of what we want to stand for. If this is the case, however, that we are all already complicit in some way with the abuses I discussed in the previous post, why have I continued to rely on the idea of complicity as the basis for evaluation of the Pro League?

The claim underlying this analysis is, therefore, that, although all of us are already somewhat complicit with chains of cooperation that assist in furthering the interests of the Saudi state, we should still, wherever it is reasonably possible, avoid choices that further deepen that complicity. And, again wherever we might judge it to be reasonable to do so, we might look to find ways to try to extract ourselves from some of the ways in which we are already complicit (although, acknowledging that total purity is always likely to be beyond us).

Is it unreasonable for us to expect players to turn down Saudi offers?

Does this claim offer another potential defence for players taking up Saudi offers? Which would be to say that, given the career brevity that Hitzlsperger notes, it is simply unreasonable to expect them to turn down a salary of three or four times what they could earn elsewhere. The offers are, as the adjective often used to accompany discussion of them reminds us, ‘life-changing’, in that they are capable of comfortably setting-up these players and their families for the entirety of their post-playing lives.

I think there is a possible case for mitigation here for the likes of Max Power — a solid lower-league pro who, while he has had a good career, is unlikely to be set for life — who signed this summer for Al-Qadsiah. But most of the players signing for Pro League teams have already earned what would be many lifetimes worth of wealth for the average person, making the meaning of ‘life-changing’ a shift from fabulously wealthy to unimaginably wealthy. Equally, almost all of the players concerned would still be able to attract multi-million pound offers from other leagues, were they to have turned down those from the Pro League. While there are, then, costs for any player in not choosing to play in Saudi, it certainly does not strike me as unreasonable to expect them to bear these costs; they would continue to be able to live lives of comfort and luxury in any case.

For any player that chooses to play in the Saudi Pro League, this remains a genuine and avoidable choice, one that deepens their complicity with a sportswashing project that provides cover for a ruthless and oppressive regime. It is a choice that deserves criticism, irrespective of whether they have previously expressed progressive sentiments.

More broadly, though, how can fans avoid likewise becoming further complicit in this type of project? This will be the subject of the final part of this discussion.

Is Saudi investment in football a moral problem?

The morality of Saudi money in football, part 1

This summer’s biggest football story continues to be the vast sums of money being spent by clubs within Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to attract star names to play in Arabia. The previous post discussed this from the perspective of the sport as a whole, thinking about how Saudi money might (or might not) change the football landscape.

There is, however, an entirely different way in which we might approach these developments, which is to consider how ethically problematic they are and how football — fans, players, regulators — should respond. This is what I’ll do over the course of three posts. In this one, I assess the reasons we might have for objecting to Saudi prominence in the sport; part two argues that our evaluations of this issue need to go beyond picking out hypocrisy; part three considers how we should best respond.

What are the issues here?

Money from Middle-Eastern petro-states is, of course, not new in football: Manchester City’s current reign of success has been bankrolled by Abu Dhabi, while Qatar, in addition to hosting last year’s World Cup, has also overseen an ownership period at Paris Saint Germain during which the club has pursued a ‘Football Manager on cheat mode’ transfer policy — bringing, among others, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar to the French capital — yet has failed to bring the Champions League trophy that would have marked the project as a success. Throughout this period, we have seen increased discussion of the concept of sportswashing as a way of capturing the ethical unease caused by links between sporting events or organisations and entities (especially states) whose wider activities raise significant moral questions.

Under the banner of sportswashing, however, there are a range of different concerns that often get bundled together. I think it is worth distinguishing between the different issues caused by state involvement of this kind, though, to be clear as to the different types of response that might be available.

The first level of concern is that state finances, or the sovereign wealth funds through which investment in football usually comes, are generally able to dwarf the wealth of even the richest private individuals, meaning funding of this kind is capable of propelling the clubs it backs straight to the peak of the football transfer market, while in the process bidding-up the transfer fees and wages that top stars are able to command. In short, it turbo-charges the effects of inequality upon levels of competition in the sport. The whole point of this site is to explore how inequality of resources off-the-field impacts what we see on-the-field, so this is certainly an effect that is worth caring about. But, it is not a problem that is uniquely caused by sportswashing, nor is it the most serious moral concern raised by the presence of Gulf money, so I’ll leave this aside for the rest of this post.

Equally, there are a whole set of worries about whether state ownership of clubs is something that takes them away from the fans: over time are we likely to come to view Newcastle United as simply a soft-power extension of the Saudi state, rather than a proud expression of the identity of a particular place and its people? Again, while a very real concern, I think this fits into a broader set of arguments about club ownership and whether it is right that football clubs are freely traded as commodities or brands, so is not just a concern that relates to sportswashing.

What is most distinctively problematic about sportswashing can be seen if we think about what the aims of the exercise are: as Wojtowicz, Fruh and Archer note, sportswashing is reputational in character, “an attempt to distract from, minimize, or normalize wrongdoing through engagement in sport” (if you’re the kind to want to read academic papers, their fuller discussion of the topic is available to read here). But any reputational gains are secured on the back of the players whose wages are funded or the fans cheering those players from the stand or watching at home: football and its participants become complicit in efforts to gloss over serious wrongs.

So how much of a moral problem is complicity within the project of establishing a positive reputation for the Saudi regime? Is it something that football players or football fans should be trying to avoid? And if we do want to avoid becoming complicit, what actions should we take?

Why care about Saudi money?

One response that is sometimes given by those who might want to play down the seriousness of sportswashing is to point towards the money that has already circulated within top level football clubs. Do we have any grounds for saying that Saudi money is worse than Roman Abramovich’s money, or even Mike Ashley’s money? There is a real point here: few of the people who possess the money to own a football club will have acquired it without some reliance upon exploitation, asset-stripping, tax avoidance or other forms of ethically dubious sharp practice. Whoever we support, it is likely that some form of dirty money lies behind them somewhere.

However, there is a difference between acknowledging that the ethical issues in discussion of football money are not blacks and whites, but rather endless shades of grey, and supporting a claim that all money is equally dubious so that no distinguishing lines might be drawn. There are undoubtedly, criticisms that might be made of money that has been made through operating a gambling firm, or a retail operation with poor labour practices towards its staff, but would anyone be willing to argue that there was absolutely no difference at all between money acquired in that manner and, say, an investment right now that came directly from Vladimir Putin? We don’t need to be able to hold up other owners as morally pure to commit to the idea that a line exists somewhere, beyond which funds are sufficiently tainted that we do not want them within the sport as this would create complicity with things we most certainly do not want to be associated with.

The question, then, in trying to assess how we should think about Saudi investment is to ask whether there are any associations of such a high degree of severity to cross this threshold.

The first thing to say is that we are obviously into different territory when we start getting full-blown states (through their sovereign wealth funds) owning football clubs. The opportunity for wrongdoing is just on a different order of magnitude for a state compared to businesses or private individuals: businesses follow (or seek to evade) laws; states make them and enforce them. States have armies, police forces and powers of coercion. This is why, when we talk of human rights abuses, we are generally pointing at state failures, either in improper use of power or failure to use powers well in controlling abuse by others within their boundaries.

And it is typically neglect or abuse of human rights that form the basis for the need to sportswash. The records of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are frequently highlighted by human rights organisations for infringements of, or failure to secure, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, etc. If a state needs to spend billions on sport in an elaborate reputation management exercise, you can hardly be surprised that what they have to hide is going to be unpleasant.

Yet, even by this standard, there is much to be appalled by when it comes to the Saudi state. As an absolute monarchy, its power basically rests in the figure of the monarch (currently King Salman), with accession decided by court intrigue between different factions among the House of Saud’s princes, such as that which brought the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to his present prime role in the lineage, at the expense of the prior holder, Muhammad bin Nayef. The government is appointed by the monarch (MBS currently sits as the country’s Prime Minister) and serves at the monarch’s discretion, unchecked by any form of institutional scrutiny or popular input.

This is one of the things that makes it easy to be disconcerted by Saudi investment in football. The PIF sovereign wealth fund is basically controlled by the King (despite the Premier League claiming to have “legally binding assurances” to the contrary when authorising the Newcastle takeover), creating a direct link between human rights abuses carried out by the Saudi state and the money being pumped into the game. There is, therefore, a direct connection between the spending by Saudi Pro League clubs and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, in every grisly detail we have subsequently found out about it, or in the 148 people who were put to death by the Saudi state last year, with public beheading still a common method of execution. We can also draw direct links between the denial of any legal right for LGBTQ+ people to express their sexuality and the desaturation of Jordan Henderson’s (more on him in the next post) rainbow armband in the video welcoming him to Al-Ettifaq. There is no easy separation between the money, the Saudi state and it’s actions.

But let’s delve a little deeper and tell another grim story (unfortunately, there are many to choose from) to help inform our evaluation of where we stand in assessing Saudi influence, with particular attention to its treatment of women and some of the much-trumpeted social reforms that have been enacted in recent years.

In 2017, a short video clip went viral on Twitter, filmed on a smartphone held at torso level, showing the shoulder and arm of a woman’s jacket. A woman’s voice is heard: “My name is Dina Ali, I’m a Saudi woman who fled Saudi Arabia to Australia to seek asylum. I stopped in the Philippines for transit. They took my passport and lock me for 13 hours just because I am a Saudi woman, with the collaboration of Saudi embassy. If my family come, they will kill me, if I go back to Saudi Arabia, I will be dead.”

Despite the efforts of many Twitter users to draw attention to her predicament or get official assistance, Dina Ali Lasloom was held at Manila airport until several members of her family arrived there. Witnesses later reported seeing her, visibly distressed, being pulled out of a room with her arms and legs bound with duct tape, her mouth taped shut and her body wrapped in a sheet as she was then carried onto a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight to Riyadh. The Saudi embassy in the Philippines sought to respond to the circulating social media information, describing it as incorrect, but confirmed that there was a “family matter” that led to a Saudi citizen returning to the Kingdom with her family.

Upon return, Dina was reportedly placed into a Dar al-Re‘aya — a ‘house of care’ tasked with imparting discipline and strengthening religious affiliation. Effectively, these are prisons for disobedient women, many of which operate in a highly abusive way.

Dina’s ultimate whereabouts and fate remain unknown.

The way Dina’s situation was handled is made possible by the guardianship system that operates in the country, which effectively consigns women to control by a male relative (father, husband, uncle, brother, even son), whose permission had to be obtained for many basic acts. So Dina’s choice to travel abroad was deemed improper, as she was doing so without the consent of her guardian.

In the period since 2017, there have been a raft of changes to the formal status of women in Saudi Arabia. Women have been granted access to services such as healthcare and education without the need for a guardian’s permission. Likewise, they may now obtain a passport or make travel plans without prior approval. Strict gender segregation of public spaces has been relaxed in a way that allowed more women access to employment or enabled them to attend sporting events. And, famously, since 2017 Saudi women have been permitted to drive.

This latter restriction had, in many senses, come to be symbolic of Saudi restriction upon women’s lives. Inspired by the Arab Spring, a homegrown movement of women — figures like Manal al-Sharif, Wajeha al-Huwaider, Loujain Al-Hathloul and Aziza al-Yousef — had begun to campaign for the right to drive, bringing the prohibition to wider prominence across the world. The provocative singer MIA chose to incorporate a reference to this, with the video for her 2012 single ‘Bad Girls’ aping the common drifting subculture of fast desert driving, but with women instead of men behind the wheel.

Within the context of the Saudis’ Vision 2030 strategy to move the economy of the kingdom away from a reliance upon oil, it is obvious why wider attention upon restrictions could be seen as an embarrassment. MBS has seen how areas within the Gulf, such as Dubai, have managed to open up to global tourism and financial investment in a way that created a viable economic future beyond oil, and is keen to follow a similar path. But, it is harder to project yourself as a destination or a suitable partner for business collaboration if your society is perceived as one of gender apartheid, with hard-line, or even backward, religious controls over its population. The fact that the apparent loosening of the guardianship system and repeal of the driving ban gained widespread approval from outside has helped to somewhat soften international perceptions, opening up possibilities, such as attracting some of football’s biggest names, that would have previously seemed impossible.

But, scratch the surface a little more and the liberalising narrative starts to look very shaky. Firstly, while there have been genuine changes to the way women are treated, with a loosening some of the guardianship restrictions in a way that promises additional freedoms to women, these are still effectively undercut by the fact that it remains a crime for a woman to disobey her guardian. What this means is that a woman is only able to take advantage of the new freedoms at her guardian’s discretion — if he wants her to remain in the home or to prevent her from travelling, she is still bound by these limits. As characterised by Megan Stack in The New York Times, what this amounts to is that Saudi “government will no longer legally force men to keep the women of their household under heightened control — but it won’t force men to emancipate women, either.” Cases like that of Dina Ali Lasloom, where a woman is going against the will of her family, would not be eased by any of the relaxations.

Beyond the question of whether changes have made a real difference, we should also look at the way that those who have advocated for change have been treated. While women were given the right to drive in 2017, many of those involved in the previous campaign for this entitlement subsequently found themselves subject to a harsh crackdown, with multiple arrests across 2018. In indeterminate periods of incarceration, activists report being subjected to torture in the form of solitary confinement, beatings, electric shocks, threats to life, waterboarding and sexual harassment.

This is part of a pattern in which the Saudi state has increasingly clamped down on any signs of citizen dissent. There is evidence of widespread use of arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance and extended detention in poor or degrading conditions as punishment for even minor displays of criticism of the ruling regime. Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi PhD student at the University of Leeds who had returned home on holiday, was last summer sentenced to 34 years in prison simply for having a Twitter profile that followed the accounts of other activists and dissidents, and for occasionally retweeting some of their tweets.

We see, then, a double-edged nature to the way the Saudi state currently operates: to the outside world, there is an effort to present a face of being a forward-looking, exciting place that is opening up both to its own citizens and to the rest of the world; at the same time, anyone within the state who questions its rulers or calls for greater reform is ruthlessly brought into line. It leaves the impression that MBS wants it to be clear that the visions for the new Saudi are all bestowed purely as a result of his own magnificence and benevolence, that he is never acting in response to pressure from his subjects, or from outsiders looking in.

Here is where we can bring things back to football. In joining Saudi clubs, footballers are making themselves complicit in this process, essentially allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool for a state that still engages in torture, whose legal and judicial processes are opaque and arbitrary in their operation, who have contributed to one of the worst current humanitarian crises in the world due to involvement in conflict in Yemen, whose treatment of migrant workers is just as bad as the more publicised cases of Qatar and the UAE, whose treatment of women, LGBTQ+ people, and religious minorities remains discriminatory and dehumanising.

Drawing a line

I made the case above that it is implausible to claim we should never raise ethical concerns about the source of money within football, but rather it is always more about making a judgement as to when a line had been crossed into impropriety. Now, I am personally of the opinion that much of the existing money already within the game raises uncomfortable moral questions, so perhaps we should have been talking about these concerns for a lot longer than we have. Equally, it is important for us to be even-handed in our assessments and criticisms so as to prevent them from lapsing into simple xenophobia — for instance, we should be prepared to be critical of the fact that the UK has consistently been one of the biggest arms suppliers to the Saudi state, assisting in building its strength and power. But even taking these points into consideration, it seems clear to me that, from a football perspective, our worries should be increased when we are talking about money from state sovereign wealth funds, and that Saudi investment is the most discomfiting of any source of funds entering the sport so far.

Everyone in football, therefore, has reasons to be concerned about Saudi money, not just for its scale and the potential to distort the finances of the game, but also because of its inseparable associations with such a harshly autocratic regime.

The organisation ALQST provides detailed monitoring of human rights issues within Saudi Arabia. Further information and detailed reports about many of the issues discussed in this post can be accessed via their site.