Over the last few weeks as the PCP/PiF bid for Newcastle United has been ongoing if you've heard me on some of the podcasts I've done of late or seen me on Twitter, one of the over riding messages I've been trying to get across is to think about the Geopolitics of the Middle East and Africa (MENA) region when you read or hear coverage, both positive and negative, on the proposed Saudi majority takeover.
The history of this divide is complex and long in the making. It transcends politics and goes deep into religious schism and years of tribalism and social discord. It is certainly far too deep to go into here but it all came to a head when in June 2017 Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates and other states severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and banned Qatari airplanes and ships from utilising their airspace and sea routes along with Saudi Arabia closing the only land border, effectively cutting Qatar off from the rest of the Gulf region. What has existed since is effectively a Gulf cold war; the two states engaged in proxy conflict in various parts of the MENA region and a very active media and electronic based propaganda campaign of information and disinformation that works on many levels.
Being immersed in the region gives you a very acute awareness of this and it's not unusual to question news stories, certainly not to take them always at face value or become very aware of how a story is presented depending on the point of view or agenda of the outlet. Put simply, you aren’t likely to find a good news story about Saudi Arabia on the Qatari Al Jazeera News Network, the parent company of BeIn Sports, and vice versa for the Saudi networks. Which - for some - explains a lot.
As news of the PCP/PiF takeover bid gathered pace it was very clear to those of us based in the MENA region one of the things that would go with this would be seeing Newcastle United thrust into the middle of this battle for hearts and minds. However for those of you back home explaining just how this works was sometimes tricky. Why would you be bothered even? The digital “Toon Town Hall” organised by MP Chi Onwurah has, however, given a wonderful opportunity and example to show just how things can be manipulated within this ongoing situation.
The event, which we’ll talk more of later, was certainly a success in my opinion. A great example how Newcastle fans can interact, civilly and intelligently, and grasp matters beyond those on field and the overriding feeling afterwards was that Newcastle United supporters are, in the vast majority, welcoming of investment from Saudi Arabia, whilst being aware of the wider discussion around human rights and broadcast piracy, and not ignorant of them. Anyone who watched the whole event or has seen the recording on YouTube could clearly see this was the takeaway message. The next day a report of the event from Al Jazeera in Qatar showed quite the opposite. Carefully selecting the comments and individuals speaking with concerns about the takeover and translating and presenting them only, the Al Jazeera report painted an entirely different narrative, much to the displeasure of the Arabic speaking supporters I know in this region. In one moment as a fanbase we can see very clearly how this will play out going forward, I suddenly don’t have to do much else to give a perfect example of this and you all know why the word geopolitics has been coming out of my mouth so frequently.
I can also see other examples of activities on both sides of the divide and Twitter is another place to look. It is quite clear to me that fans of Newcastle United who use Twitter are interacting quite frequently with government controlled accounts. Designed to pass information and disinformation and to sway the narrative, what stands out for me is how quickly these accounts started to interact and how swiftly they can jump into a thread to try and shape it. Amazing and, in my opinion, another thing pointing to how important the purchase of Newcastle United has suddenly become in the MENA region and beyond.
It was an honour to be asked to contribute to the Digital Town Hall. I think as an example of the depth of intelligence and understanding of the potential issues, as fans, we could be dealing with as the PCP/PiF takeover progresses. Like “crossing the pond by walking on the water lilies” as Bill Corcoran, who many know from the Fans’ Foodbank and helped to pull it together, said to me in the run up to it. Delicate yes but I think well achieved. It was good to hear from Steve Hastie too, we go back a long way since founding NUSC, being involved in turning it into the trust and then creating NUFC Fans United and, of course, Steve was also key in setting up the foodbank along with Colin Whittle. Steve remains passionate about communication with the club and that was certainly a running theme. Steve Wraith, someone I have always enjoyed debating matters NUFC with through the years mentioned it too, along with other insights and I’m quite sure, if he could, he would have said much more. I certainly believe if he could have ensured this event was seen in the right places he would. Also banging the communication drum well were Greg Tomlinson and Alex Hurst of NUST, among quite a few others associated with the Trust.
I had a few friends and fans via social media express concern that the Town Hall eventually turned into an advert for NUST and I can understand why - however as they were co-hosting - it makes sense that members would be lined up, prepared and ready to speak. As founding member and first (interim) chairman, the principles behind NUST remain something close to my heart. As long as they keep reaching out to their membership, trust the membership to shape their decisions, lead where appropriate but always be guided by the members and principally their members, they will remain an important voice and critical friend of the club. NUST however can not and should not be the only voice. Even as the membership grows there many more who are not and some who will never be members. Therefore they can not be the sole method of interaction or point of contact between club and fanbase.
I served on Fans Forums chaired by Derek Llambias when we eventually were able to gatecrash them, thanks to the intelligence of Bill Corocran, no less. The original ones were very hand picked and genuine lip service, discussing the temperature of chips and graffiti in the toilets. Eventually we did get Mr Llambias to listen in many ways, especially as the threat of relegation in 2008 became real. He took on board ways to get the fanbase right behind the team. If you remember the scarves for the Boro home game for example, that came from the Fans Forum, with a big shove from Steve Hastie and myself. However they thought they had done the job, didn’t follow it up, we lost the crucial home game against Fulham and the rest is sadly history. From the end of that season the shutters came down in terms of open communication. Subsequent attempts to get the Fans Forum running properly again fraught with mistrust and mistakes on both sides and suspicion abounds. Lee Marshall at the club has done a lot but I genuinely believe he could and would have done so much more but was repeatedly hamstrung by the management above him, directly answering to Mike Ashley. This is a shame and an opportunity lost. Discrediting the Fans Forum in the way it has been recently is unfair on the fans who give their time and try to interact properly, in spite of starting from a position of mutual disharmony.
The ever knowledgeable and respected George Caulkin, who did an excellent job of hosting the Town Hall, expressed his pleasure at the way it went and suggested that a Zoom type meeting could be a way to interact going forward. Certainly if it went like this with the right host, tone and level of mutual respect it certainly would be one way I have no doubt. We need to look at as many options as we can, especially in the digital age where, as the Town Hall demonstrated, people could attend world wide.
Communication and interaction on many levels and in as many ways as possible will be the key for any new owner. Something I know Bin Zayed Group had considered at length viewing the Man City model and I am certain PCP/PiF will be looking at this too. They will have a long honeymoon period I’m sure and must take advantage of this to get communication with the fanbase right in as many ways so everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, who holds NUFC dear can feel that their voice can be heard, feel included and listened to. Meeting many fans all over the region during the NUST roadshows after its formation showed me this clearly. Newcastle fans will never be told what to do or how to think but they will interact, listen and engage and even when you agree to disagree be happy if they believe their voice has been heard. The cats can be herded, but only on their terms. This is healthy and part of our uniqueness as a club I believe.
Someone else at the meeting mentioned healing. This is something we very much need. Divisions within the fanbase need to be repaired and mutual respect and trust between our own fans reestablished. The Club, City, Community synergy that exists when the club runs well needs to be properly reconnected and taken advantage of for all to benefit. A buoyant NUFC makes the community thrive and the City buzz. A partnership, and I believe this is what it very much could be, with the financial clout of Saudi Arabia brings so many opportunities not just for the club but for the city, region and fanbase globally. We can’t, and indeed won’t, ignore the concerns of the world when entering into this partnership however. We must constantly be wise to the wider geopolitical games at play and always be ready to question any negative association that the club could be brought into. That said if we are prepared to embrace and welcome the opportunity at the same time we could eventually also be part of Saudi Arabia’s growth and development. Regionally, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is known to look to the UAE for inspiration and things are changing, albeit slowly. Why not then give him the opportunity to look to the North East of England for this too? The fanbase of Newcastle United stands with the potential to be more than just critical friends of the club and become a beacon not just for the city but something so much more. I certainly would never have thought this after my first Fans Forum meeting with a red faced and angry Derek Llambias. We stand on the cusp of something potentially game changing in every way imaginable. Keep the cans (olab in Arabic) chilled lads and lasses, the passing of the Ashley years deserves a celebration.