Newcastle United: Wild scenes at first game since Saudi takeover
Paul never imagined he would be spending his Sunday afternoon figuring out how to tuck a keffiyeh around his head.
The lifelong Newcastle United supporter is celebrating the end of Mike Ashley's 14 years at the helm of the football club, and welcoming with open arms his beloved team's new Saudi owners.
'We’ve had 14 years of being the cheapest club in the league... now we’re the richest club in the world'
- Newcastle United fan
Wearing the headdress along with a long white thobe he ordered last week, Paul finished off his look with a gold necklace bearing a dollar sign pendant.
He's among tens of thousands of Newcastle fans who welcomed the new Saudi ownership with wild scenes of singing, drinking, wearing Saudi attire and boasting about their club’s newfound wealth, during the first game since the club was taken over.
The atmosphere outside St James’ Park Stadium before the game against Tottenham Hotspurs on Sunday afternoon was rapturous, as fans revelled in seeing the back of 14 years of mostly misery under Ashley.
“We’ve had 14 years of being the cheapest club in the league... now we’re the richest club in the world,” one fan told Middle East Eye.
On 7 October, a consortium led by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) - which is worth over $400bn - completed the buyout of the northeast England club, after a previous takeover attempt collapsed last year.
Thousands of supporters wore keffiyehs - or, in many cases, tea towels - and waved Saudi Arabia’s flag, as they welcomed their wealthy new Arabian Gulf owners. Some fans sang “we're rich as fuck” and joked “We're Saudis, we can afford anything”, while others threw around fake cash.
A small contingent of Saudi nationals was also in attendance outside the ground, carrying around pictures of the Saudi royal family and lapping up praise and greetings from locals.
Fans discuss human rights
Since the £305m takeover ($418.8m) was announced 10 days ago, the issue of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and whether the kingdom was trying to “sportswash” its reputation, has dominated headlines.
Amid the jubilations, fans who spoke to MEE did not shy away from questions on human rights, with many raising concerns. Several came out swinging, insisting that fans could not be blamed, and that they were only following the example of their own government.
“The UK government does trade deals and arms deals with Saudi Arabia, so if they can do that sort of deal, then why can’t Newcastle do a deal with a Saudi Arabia-led consortium?” Jonathan Greenwood, a presenter at Newcastle Fans TV, told MEE.
“When the Saudis come into town, the Queen literally rolls out the red carpet for the Saudi family,” said season ticket holder Titu Sultan Ahad, referring to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the UK in 2018.
He said that if the UK government, royal family and Premier League were in favour of Saudi partnerships, then Newcastle should not be questioned.
“The Saudis have investment in Twitter, Facebook, Starbucks, Uber; are you going to stop using social media, are you going to stop having coffee? We’re not going to stop going to our football club,” Lee Lawler, editor and presenter of Newcastle Fans TV, told MEE.
Lawler brought up the examples of Manchester City, owned by the United Arab Emirates’ deputy prime minister, and Paris Saint Germain, owned by a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, as examples of Middle Eastern countries with poor human rights records already involved in European football.
Prior to kick-off, a van with an image of Jamal Khashoggi, the MEE columnist murdered by Saudi agents at the country's Istanbul consulate in 2018, drove around the stadium.
A small protest organised by Spurs’ official LGBT supporters association, the Proud Lilywhites, meanwhile raised awareness about Suhail al-Jameel, a gay Saudi man reportedly arrested and imprisoned for posting a shirtless picture.
Some fans who spoke to MEE raised concerns about Riyadh’s policies, including the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign in Yemen, which has targeted schools and hospitals and killed thousands of civilians since 2015.
Keith Hussein, a Newcastle fan of Egyptian descent, said that he “would rather it was somebody else” taking over the club. He said that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was “several times worse” than Ashley's - who has repeatedly been accused of overseeing exploitative working conditions at his retail chain Sports Direct.
Hussein is from South Shields, a town just outside of Newcastle, which has a significant longstanding Yemeni community.
He told MEE that the Muslims and Yemenis he had spoken to from the town were disappointed by the deal, which to them sent an “offensive” signal.
“The focus on Saudi Arabia and sportswashing seems to be giving the UK a free ride on issues it is partly to blame for, like Yemen and human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia itself - issues I've only really come to learn since the takeover saga began,” Luke, an army veteran from Gateshead, told MEE.
Robbie, a Geordie dressed in a thobe and keffiyeh and holding a pint of beer in his hand, said that he hoped the Newcastle takeover would help change Saudi Arabia’s views on human rights issues. He said he and other fans would not be afraid to speak out.
Saudi journalist serenaded
Newcastle United's new owners have sought to distance themselves from authorities in Riyadh - but the scenes on Sunday told a different story.
English financier Amanda Staveley, who is now a part-owner of the club, said last week that “our partner is not the Saudi state, our partner is the PIF”.
The difference between the two is minimal, given that the PIF is chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, and six of its eight other board members are Saudi government ministers.
Court documents have also revealed that the PIF was used to purchase two private jets that transported the men that killed and dismembered Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Those trying to argue the difference between the sovereign wealth fund and the government will not have been helped by a small, but very vocal, group of Saudi men outside St James' Park, who went around holding a Saudi flag and pictures of the crown prince and King Salman.
It appears they did not get the memo that the Saudi takeover supposedly had nothing to do with the government or royal family.
Saudi journalist Ibrahim al-Frayan was the most prominent member of the Saudi contingent outside the stadium. Newcastle fans serenaded the small, moustachioed man, who was wearing full Saudi traditional dress including a black bisht cloak.
At one point, one Newcastle fan started screaming and pointing at Frayan, claiming that he was the man responsible for the whole takeover. Other fans told him he was mistaken: “He's a different Saudi guy.”
Yet Frayan’s Twitter profile picture is a photograph of him shaking hands with the king, while his header photo is of the crown prince.
The journalist went around taking pictures with fans, many of them children, inviting them to hold up a picture of Mohammed bin Salman.
Earlier this year, a US intelligence report found that the crown prince was responsible for the killing of Khashoggi - an association Newcastle would surely be eager to avoid.
Translation: Come on Newcastle
One of the Saudis in attendance claimed that the narrative around the death of the Saudi journalist was “fake news”. He also denied that buying Newcastle United would help the kingdom’s image, insisting that Saudi Arabia didn’t need any help and that the decision was purely commercial.
‘No noise from the Saudi boys’
When the match itself began, the joyous scenes continued, and there was an even more significant Saudi in the house.
Minutes before kick-off, one of the biggest cheers of the day went to Saudi businessman Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of the PIF and Newcastle’s new non-executive chairman, as he took his seat next to Staveley.
Last week, court documents revealed that Rumayyan played a key role in the seizure and transfer of dozens of companies on behalf of the crown prince during the de-facto leader’s controversial “anti-corruption” campaign.
Prior to kick-off, UK broadcaster Sky Sports was strongly criticised for “embracing sportswashing”, after its coverage appeared to praise the new Saudi owners with little mention of human rights.
The wild scenes and adrenaline appeared to rub off on the Newcastle players, as they scored just two minutes into the game, sending the stadium into pandemonium.
But soon, reality kicked in, as Spurs got themselves back in the game and ahead, to eventually win 3-2. Fans were reminded exactly why they wanted Saudi investment in the first place.
The game was briefly halted, and put into perspective, after a fan in the stands needed urgent medical attention.
There were several chants during the game referencing the Saudi takeover.
Tottenham fans sang “Where were you when you were poor?” and “You’re just a shit Man City”, alluding to the UAE-owned champions of the English Premier League. The home fans hit back with: “We’re richer than you, fuck off Tottenham Hotspur, we’re richer than you.”
As Spurs went ahead and took control of the game, they jokingly sang “You’re getting sold in the morning” and “No noise, from the Saudi boys”, as the scoreline progressively reduced the decibel levels.
For the “Saudi boys” to make more noise in English football, and to rival the likes of Manchester City, Sunday’s showing on the pitch proved that significant investment would be needed.
But despite the result, the scenes of elation before the game, and fans like Paul feeling like they "have their club back" thanks to the new owners, is reason enough for Saudi Arabia to think their decision to buy a football club in northeast England is already paying off.