LGBTQ+ Newcastle fans have been forced to consider the poor treatment of LGBTQ+ people in Saudi Arabia after their club’s recent takeover.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government, bought a controlling stake in Newcastle United last month, after finally convincing the Premier League to allow the deal to go through.
The PIF has vast financial resources that they are suggesting could be used to push Newcastle to being a potential Premier League winning outfit, similarly to what Manchester City have done over the last decade and a half after they also received a cash injection with its origins in the Middle East.
Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, and can be punished by death. The awful treatment of LGBTQ+ in Saudi Arabia is not hidden, or talked down; it is actively pursued by a state that enjoys a very friendly relationship with the West.
This obviously puts Newcastle fans in a tricky position. While they bear no responsibility for the actions of their owners; actively supporting the club in this scenario might feel like a conflict of their own personal beliefs. For LGBTQ+ fans, this issue can only be compounded further.
An LGBTQ+ fan who I spoke to and didn’t wish to be identified, said of the previous ownership, led by also controversial Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley: “It felt like the heart was gone from our club.”
However, a potential takeover from the PIF left them conflicted, as they said: “I felt torn. I wanted to see my club reach new highs… But I was appalled by the human rights issues. The treatment of LGBTQ+ people is disgusting.”
An argument has emerged around previous incursions into English football from less than savoury figures, and the actions of FIFA, as this fan said: “I also think it’s a shame that the World Cup is at Qatar. This country is just as bad.” Others have highlighted the existing ownership of Chelsea and Manchester City as examples of those who could be judged equally as poorly as Newcastle’s new owners, with all other 19 Premier League clubs recently meeting to discuss the Newcastle takeover.
The official LGBT Newcastle fan group ‘United With Pride’ released a statement after the takeover noting the issues on Saudi Arabia: “We acknowledge that Saudi Arabia as a country is one of the least tolerant for LGBTQ+ and gender rights anywhere in the world,” but still ended up striking a generally optimistic tone about how the new owners could support their group, and in turn be influenced by them: “There is potential to be a positive influence to improving the conditions for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia,” and pointed to how in recent years “the country relaxed some laws for women.” Whether that will be possible remains to be seen, and allegations that the Saudi takeover is a large-scale example of ‘sportswashing’ persist.
Notably, United With Pride used Manchester City, whose ownership has links to the Qatari state, another country with poor rights for LGBTQ+ citizens, as an example of comparison for what they hope the new ownership can achieve, saying: “Manchester City has a long-established healthy engagement with the community, especially in the development of women’s participation and the visibility of their LGBTQ+ fan group ‘Canal Street Blues’.
“This indicates that the culture of the Country of origin of the owners and investors does not necessarily reflect the ethos of the football club.”
The fan I spoke to agreed with this idea, saying: “I think if they worked more with United with pride to get a message across. I think they could get players to address these issues too.
“To say they support LGBT fans and want to welcome them to a game. Things like this can make a difference.” They also acknowledged that when it comes to this change: “like with everything talk is cheap.”
How United With Pride carries on under the new ownership of Newcastle United remains to be seen, and whether LGBTQ+ fans feel fairly catered to in the coming years, which seem to be destined to contain investment and success on the pitch, and to continue the Saudi Arabian Government’s ‘Vision 2030’, which seems to revolve almost entirely around closer economic relations with the West, will determine how LGBTQ+ fans judge their club’s new owners.