Since its takeover, Newcastle has become a source of national pride in Saudi Arabia

Al-Waleed al-Dabbasi was once lonely as a Newcastle fan in Saudi Arabia, but since the English football club was taken over in 2021 by a consortium linked to the wealthy Gulf monarchy, he has become a national “pride” there.

“I’ve been a Newcastle fan for more than 25 years, but I thought I was the only one here,” the 37-year-old physiotherapist told AFP after watching TV in a crowded cafe. The victory (2-1) of his favorite team against Tottenham.

The Saudis are increasingly interested in this excellent club, because they “think it is the pride” of their country, notes Al-Waleed Al-Dibasi, eyes fixed on TV, surrounded by men in black and white uniforms, in the colors of Newcastle.

Non-governmental organizations strongly denounced Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle, whose sovereign wealth fund now owns 80% of the shares, describing it as “sports laundering”, or the exploitation of sports to rebuild an image tarnished by serious human rights violations.

The Premier League agreed to takeover after making sure that the Saudi state would not take control of the team.

“It’s just an investment project,” said Abdullah Al-Qashami, a new Newcastle fan.

“If it was really a sports wash, the fund would have bought a bigger club that is already successful,” says the 27-year-old engineer.

– “identify” –

The ‘Magpie’, (foot, the Newcastle players’ nickname in reference to the black and white) won their fourth and final title of champions England in… 1927 and their last major title, the Intercity Fairs Cup, was replaced by the UEFA Cup, dating back to 1969. They have struggled in recent years to stay in the Premier League, without being able to avoid relegation in 2009, and then in 2016.

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But the English club are currently fourth in the Premier League, having won four of their last five games, including a 4-0 win over Aston Villa last weekend.

For Walid al-Dabbasi, this success will “encourage support for the club as well as the issue of nationalism”. The supporter maintains dedicated Twitter and YouTube accounts for the team, spreading match news and analysis to thousands of followers.

The local English-speaking Arab News has launched a podcast called “Black and White” (Black and White, in French), dedicated to the history of Newcastle.

“The Saudi public is getting to know Newcastle, and Newcastle fans are getting to know Saudi Arabia,” Ali Khaled, Arab News’s sports editor and podcast host, told AFP.

– ‘Love of country’ –

In Riyadh, the capital, stores in the city center regularly lack Newcastle shirts. The number of fans who watch “magpie” matches on the big screens in cafes is increasing despite the absence of famous players.

“The national question plays more than just sporting reasons, because Newcastle has become a Saudi club,” said Ibrahim Al-Hajjar, who runs one of these cafes in Riyadh.

Supporting Newcastle is far from rivaling the enthusiasm generated by Real Madrid or Barcelona. But the Saudis are happy to get an answer in Paris Saint-Germain – owned by the Qataris – or Manchester City – owned by the United Arab Emirates.

Abdulrahman Al-Qahtani, who had never watched the Premier League prior to the Newcastle takeover, traveled to the UK three times this year to watch the matches in person.

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“I love Newcastle,” the 27-year-old rejoices. “It is now a club that represents Saudi Arabia on the world stage.”

Source: Agence France-Presse.

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