Newcastle fans share MBS memes and joke about Saudi rights abuses
Newcastle United fans are adding Saudi Arabian flags to their Twitter handles, sharing memes of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and, in some cases, making jokes about human rights abuses, in anticipation of a Saudi-led consortium buying out the football club.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by the crown prince, is on the verge of completing a takeover deal for around $368m which would give it an 80 percent stake in the Premier League team.
Newcastle United fans have grown increasingly impatient with current owner Mike Ashley, regularly holding "Ashley Out" protests. The retail tycoon has been criticised for lack of investment and interest in the club.
Scores of fans celebrated news of the planned takeover by amending their Twitter profiles to include Saudi flags and pictures of Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
Some even went as far as putting towels on their heads, mimicking the keffiyeh headdress, and wearing Newcastle-themed traditional thawb garments.
Supporters shared their appreciation for their prospective new owners by posting videos and memes of the crown prince.
One Twitter user lauded an interview in which the crown prince stated that "only death" can stop him.
Other fans drew comparisons between Mohammed bin Salman and Alan Shearer, the former Newcastle United striker who holds the record for the most Premier League goals ever scored.
On Wednesday, Qatar-based broadcaster beIN sports wrote to the Premier League to “fully interrogate” the takeover, citing concerns about Saudi-facilitated piracy. It accused the Saudi Arabian government of “facilitation of the near three-year theft of the Premier League's commercial rights - and in turn your club's commercial revenues”.
Neighbours Saudi Arabia and Qatar are locked in a bitter dispute, with the former placing the rival gas-rich emirate under a blockade.
Several sports journalists and pundits, including former footballer Stan Collymore and Doha-based commentator Richard Keys, have also raised questions about the morality of the proposed buyout.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing war crimes during the ongoing civil war in Yemen, detaining and torturing women's rights activists, and just last week carried out its 800th execution since King Salman took the throne in 2015.
Mohammed bin Salman also stands accused by the United Nations and CIA of being directly involved in the brutal murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both expressed concern about Saudi Arabia using the Newcastle United takeover as a PR tool to "sportswash" its human rights record.
“Any takeover of a British football club, that exploits football fans' love of their team, should not be conflated with the benevolence of one of the world's most tyrannical despots,” Marc Owen Jones, professor of Middle East Studies at Doha's Hamad bin Khalifa University, told Middle East Eye.
“All it does is whitewash Saudi human rights abuses, and exploit sports diplomacy to undermine justice and human rights.”
Similar accusations of "sportswashing" have been levelled at the kingdom for hosting high-profile events over the past year, including the Dakar Rally and Anthony Joshua’s most recent world heavyweight boxing match.
Many Newcastle fans remained undeterred by the backlash, however, and have even joked about rights abuses on social media.
Some went to the extent of making football chants about "beheading who we want" and the crown prince "hating Mister Khashoggi".
Newcastle United FC were approached by Middle East Eye for comment on the reactions from their fans, but did not respond.
Not all commentators are put off by the kingdom's troubling human rights record. Daily Telegraph journalist Luke Edwards, for instance, said that it should not be Newcastle United's place to condemn Saudi Arabia, given that the country is considered an ally and friend of the UK government.
Many human rights activists and politicians have questioned that partnership, however, and in recent years there has been growing scrutiny of British arms being sold to Saudi Arabia, only to be used in its disastrous war in Yemen. The UN has described the conflict as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
England-based fans weren’t the only ones tweeting about the takeover.
Following a pattern of other topics that the kingdom has an interest in, a raft of social media accounts - often anonymous, some verified - have tweeted in support of the takeover, while also promoting other Saudi interests or policies.
Apparent Saudi-based accounts have also been using the Arabic hashtag Newcastle (نيوكاسل#) to share elaborately edited videos praising the kingdom.
Many of the Twitter accounts associated with these posts were created in the past few days, raising concerns that they could be the latest example of pro-Saudi propaganda campaigns involving bot networks.
One example of suspicious activity involved two female fans, supposedly from Newcastle, posting the exact same tweet calling the emir of Qatar "ugly" - a highly unlikely topic of conversation in northeast England.
“The tweet from the ‘NewcastleMBS’ account does not exist anymore. @Newcastlembs now directs to an Arabic account - I somehow doubt Georgia Abrewis is now tweeting only in Arabic,” said Jones, who has written extensively about Saudi disinformation networks.
“It seems that the same person likely is running both accounts, but deleted one and kept the other. Most likely sock puppet accounts,” Jones explained.
“It makes no sense young Geordie girls would be insulting, let alone sharing pictures of a Qatari politician.”
Saudi Arabia's army of bots and trolls on social media is known as "the flies", and is known to have been set up by Saud al-Qahtani, who served as a close aide to the crown prince before being implicated in Khashoggi's murder.
Qahtani is also accused by beIN sports of being behind a Saudi-led piracy TV network, beoutQ, which illegally airs football games that the Doha-based broadcaster has exclusive rights to in the region.