Ed Johnson-Williams

On the whataboutery around the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United

Saudi Arabia wants to buy 80% of Newcastle United Football Club to make itself look good.

I'm a Newcastle fan. I'm appalled by the idea of Saudi Arabia buying the club. Saudi Arabia is using the club to improve its terrible and well-deserved image. Saudi Arabia has a disgraceful human rights record. It also plays a leading role in the world's addiction to oil.

Countries should not buy football clubs. Especially countries that abuse people like Saudi Arabia does.

We're unlikely to get to the point that football's authorities deal with this properly. They should. It’s their responsibility.

But as fans, let's not try to make ourselves feel better about Saudi Arabia buying Newcastle United. Pointing out other bad things does not stop Saudi Arabia's actions being worse.

People are understandably desperate to get rid of Mike Ashley and move on to a different owner. I am too.

But the reasons, the whataboutery, some people are using to make it seem like it's fine for Saudi Arabia to own the club are getting ridiculous.

Here is some of the whataboutery I've seen people engaging in over the last few days.

1. Whatabout Mike Ashley?

Yes. Mike Ashley is a bad boss. His company Sports Direct treats its workers terribly. Mike Ashley has treated the club terribly. But, unlike Saudi Arabia, Mike Ashley does not:

  • murder journalists [1]
  • behead people [2]
  • lead wars that kill civilians [3]
  • put people in prison for saying that men and women are equal [4]

2. Whatabout Saudi Arabia investing in other clubs?

This one is often followed up with something about how the media didn't cover Saudi Arabia having interest in other clubs.

Yes. It is bad that Saudi Arabia has invested indirectly in other clubs to try to improve its image.

And while we're here…Yes, it is also bad that Saudi Arabia paid social media influencers to go to a music festival in Saudi Arabia and post about a 'cultural revolution'.

Some people seem to think that anyone who criticises the Saudi takeover is holding Newcastle to a higher moral standard than other clubs. I don't fully understand why some people think this.

Journalists have covered Saudi Arabia investing in or being interested in buying other clubs in the past. How else would any of us have heard about it happening if journalists had not covered it?

3. Whatabout the UK's arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

Yes. This is also very bad. The UK should not sell arms to Saudi Arabia. That Saudi Arabia buys so many arms for its war in Yemen is a reason why Newcastle United should not be involved with them.

4. Whatabout the fans? Don’t they deserve some success?

It would be great for Newcastle to have success. Supporting Newcastle under Mike Ashley has often been rubbish. But if Newcastle does have success using Saudi Arabia's money, it will be hollow.

Sidenote: Does any team actually deserve success more or less than other teams?

5. Whatabout you? Don’t criticise the deal if you do unethical things too

This is the worst one.

The thinking goes like this. If you use oil to drive or pay money to a company like Uber (another Saudi investment), then it’s hypocritical to criticise the Saudi takeover of Newcastle.

You’ve got to wonder whether people saying this have been criticising Mike Ashley over the last few years while paying money to Newcastle United, Sports Direct, House of Fraser or any of his other businesses.

I suspect some people find this argument effective though. The sort of person who criticises a country for committing torture probably also feels a bit guilty about using oil for transport. But any guilt we feel for that should not stop us criticising the Saudi state.

Another way of making this odd argument is,

“Hey! How dare you condemn that person for murdering their kids? Yesterday you parked with half a wheel in the next parking space along!”

It’s clearly ridiculous.

It’d be quite dangerous if everyone stopped criticising extremely unethical things (like torture) just because they also made individual choices that might be unethical but are incredibly difficult to avoid in the modern world.

We can still criticise unspeakable actions by a country even if we make (much less consequential) unethical actions in our day-to-day lives.

When I used an Uber to take my baby to the hospital at 3am, did it immediately become hypocritical to criticise Uber or their Saudi investors? Obviously not.

Ethical purity is impossible. No-one meets that test. No-one is asking for ethical purity. Torture is wrong. It is infinitely worse than taking an Uber.

Newcastle should not be involved with a prospective owner who commits torture.

6. Whatabout the Queen/Prince William/Prince Charles/Donald Trump/Boris Johnson?

If Mohammad bin Salman is good enough for them to meet him, he’s good enough for Newcastle

Maybe they should not have met him. Maybe they took him to task on human rights? A photo of someone meeting someone is not a good reason why it’s ok for a club to accept someone like that as their owner.

7. Whatabout other owners?

All owners are bad men with a bad past (apparently). Hardly any (no?) other owner has abused people in the way Saudi Arabia has.

8. Whatabout what journalists did/did not say in the past?

A whole thread of this whataboutery is finding previous articles or tweets by journalists who criticise the Saudi takeover of Newcastle. People then say that these journalists were less critical of potential Saudi investment in other clubs and therefore it's hypocritical for journalists to criticise this deal.

It does not matter what journalists did or did not say in the past.

We are either happy for Saudi Arabia to use Newcastle United to persuade more people to look favourably on it or not.

What a journalist said or did not say in the past has no effect on how horrific it is for Saudi Arabia to beheading people.


  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-49826905 ↩︎

  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/26/saudi-arabia-criticised-over-executions-for-drug-offences ↩︎

  3. https://www.amnesty.org.uk/exposed-british-made-bombs-used-civilian-targets-yemen ↩︎

  4. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47553416 ↩︎