The Gulf and the British Regional Divide

On October 7, 2021, 1000’s of Newcastle United soccer followers gathered on the entrance of St. James’ Park. Throughout a sea of black and white Newcastle shirts, a number of supporters waved inexperienced flags bearing the Islamic testimony of religion: “there isn’t any God however God. Muhammad is his prophet.

Newcastle supporters previous to the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St. James Park on October 17, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Getty Photographs

Followers had referred to as this impromptu celebration to have fun the controversial retail magnate Mike Ashley’s departure as proprietor after he offered the membership to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. A brand new period below Saudi Arabia’s Public Funding Fund had begun. Newcastle now boasted the world’s wealthiest homeowners. Ecstatic supporters danced and drank lengthy into the evening. Some even wore tea towels on their heads in an apparently pleasant imitation of the Saudi-style keffiyeh.

Not everybody was overcome with optimism over the membership’s future below Saudi possession. Essential commentators speculated that Riyadh was looking for to launder its popularity and erase detrimental tales by harnessing a prestigious sports activities group—a observe often known as “sportswashing.” Many followers, nonetheless, considered the Saudis as their saviors.

Like all English soccer golf equipment, Newcastle is an important supply of native delight, pleasure and infrequently frustration. From Manchester to Sunderland, the roars of spectators reverberate throughout rooftops, typically far past the soccer stadium. These groups not solely carry robust emotional significance but in addition symbolize core social and financial establishments inside usually faltering English native economies. Soccer golf equipment draw nationwide and generally worldwide vacationers into regional cities and cities, filling pubs and eating places on match days. Certainly, the promotion or relegation of a group—and thus the rise and fall of its popularity—typically has a number of and compounding socioeconomic impacts on total cities. Newcastle’s native businesspeople and politicians hoped their group’s new homeowners would rework the membership into a worldwide model, serving to carry all the North East out of post-industrial decline.

From a British perspective, Gulf investments in Northern England are certain up inside the so-called “levelling up agenda”—a conservative authorities coverage program meant to cut back financial inequality between the South East and the English peripheries. From its inception in 2019, below the premiership of Boris Johnson, the agenda has been criticized for technical hollowness and failure, as disaster after disaster has consumed the conservative authorities. But, by means of the levelling-up agenda an financial relationship has solidified between the North of England and the Gulf petrostates. These capital flows will possible function a key technique by which the British authorities hopes to say “levelling up success.”

For his or her half, the oil sheikhdoms are keen to purchase Northern Soccer golf equipment, both straight by means of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund or by means of personal buyers with robust hyperlinks to governing regimes. Whereas such investments might assist treatment the Gulf’s worldwide picture, these golf equipment additionally symbolize “undervalued property” and subsequently probably strategic long-term investments. Gulf states act as rational buyers who can construct world-class membership groups with profitable gross sales of kits, tickets and merchandise. The golf equipment’ promoting alternatives, in flip, assist bolster the photographs of those international locations, for instance, positioning the UAE as a luxurious vacationer vacation spot with a world-leading airline, or Gulf buyers as wonderful potential enterprise companions. Thus, whereas proudly owning a membership is a high-risk funding, with sufficient time and assets, a group might be was a revenue-generating machine.

Thought of in and of themselves, golf equipment like Newcastle are worthy of long-term investments. Lengthy-standing regional inequality has rendered labor and property distinctly undervalued within the English North. Furthermore, by producing success and goodwill amongst decision-makers in austerity-hit areas, golf equipment can act as springboards for Gulf buyers to ease their transfer into different property and industries. Turning a membership round and boosting the native financial system can translate into political affect and a capability to form coverage agendas favorably for Gulf capital funding and wealth extraction, thus fulfilling GCC’s strategic aims to diversify away from oil.


Britain’s Financial Divide


Critics of Boris Johnson’s “levelling-up” agenda instructed it was each “complicated” and “meaningless”—an evaluation tough to shake.[1] Many frightened that, with out tangible factors of motion, his program was set to hitch an intensive checklist of comparable proposals that had tried and did not reverse widening regional inequality in Britain. For the reason that 1980s, these inequalities have formed Britain’s political geography, with politicians and journalists characterizing locations like Northern England—as soon as Britain’s heartland for coal, metal, delivery and manufacturing—as areas “left behind.”

Taken as a statistical complete, the North—which means Yorkshire, the North East and the North West—suffers from excessive ranges of poverty, poor public well being and quickly decaying infrastructure. The South East, in contrast, suffers from what economists would possibly name an issue of “overvalued property.” The acute focus of financial exercise within the South East feeds the area’s housing disaster, exorbitant rents and home value bubbles.[2] The North-South divide—whereas maybe higher characterised as a “poisonous relationship”—stays a broad statistical actuality, observable in an unlimited array of datasets, from life expectancy to academic attainment. This divide has grown to the purpose the place it’s similar to post-reunification Germany, and unfulfilled pledges to “repair it” are virtually as outdated because the hole itself.

This divide has grown to the purpose the place it’s similar to post-reunification Germany, and unfulfilled pledges to “repair it” are virtually as outdated because the hole itself.

Boris Johnson’s levelling up platform grew out of his marketing campaign within the 2019 common election. That 12 months, the Conservative Social gathering made important inroads throughout the North and the Midlands, profitable massive in what has since grow to be often known as the “pink wall”—pink being the colour of the Labour Social gathering, which had for generations dominated throughout this chain of post-industrial constituencies. As a result of these similar constituencies had usually voted to go away the European Union throughout the 2016 referendum on Britain leaving the European Union, segments of British media tried to promote the conservative flip within the 2019 election as solely decided by Brexit. Such arguments, nonetheless, betray a Westminster-centric conception of politics, neglecting how significantly these in Britain’s “left behind” areas take regional inequality.

Stressing Brexit as a singular clarification leaves unanswered why so many post-industrial Northern areas voted for Brexit within the first place. Even when many citizens had particular objections to Brussels, the vote may equally be seen as an expression of frustration at Westminster’s reluctance to handle varied types of widening inequality, together with, however not restricted to, the North-South divide. Boris Johnson’s pledge to “Get Brexit Carried out” is thus not essentially distinct from the demand to “degree up” the nation and drive a refund into Britain’s “Rust Belt.” It’s the similar purpose the federal government is eager to help high-profile investments just like the Newcastle takeover.

Since 2019, GCC investments in North England have notably elevated. The Financial institution of London and the Center East, Europe’s largest Islamic financial institution, credit the levelling up agenda with boosting regional infrastructure and connectivity with the Gulf.[3] In consequence, the Financial institution notes, “regional investments now provide the prospect of stronger returns.”[4] The North of England is rising as an attractive prospect for state buyers, particularly these with sufficient capital and one eye on long-term revenue extraction. Wages, rents and land prices are considerably decrease within the North of England, typically coming second solely to Wales by way of affordability. For the GCC’s rich financiers keen to spend throughout varied sectors, the North presents probably fertile floor for wealth extraction.


Entangled Histories


The fates of England’s North and the Arabian Peninsula are deeply entwined. The rise and fall of their prospects mirror one another inside the financial historical past of the 20 th century. The collapse of British manufacturing and coal mining—the pinnacles of the Northern financial system—coincided straight with the age of excessive oil costs and the rise of OPEC. As Britain quickly de-industrialized within the 1970s, the Gulf was reaping the tremendous earnings of that decade’s oil disaster, consolidating possession of its assets and amassing overseas foreign money that required pressing re-investment.

Anglo-Gulf relations transcend easy power dependency. Though Britain is at the moment importing massive quantities of GCC oil as a result of battle in Ukraine, the nation has traditionally remained comparatively cushioned from overt reliance on the Gulf due to Russian, Norwegian and North Sea oil. Britain can be an vital export associate for the Gulf and, for the reason that 1980s, has served as a zone for oil wealth funding. Extra substantial direct Gulf involvement within the British financial system first materialized within the British banking sector below Margret Thatcher’s premiership. Skyrocketing oil costs throughout the 1970s had coincided with the beginnings of economic liberalization within the Metropolis of London. In the course of the 1980s, the Saudi Arabian Financial Company consolidated Gulf investments in London by making a department of the Arab Bankers’ Affiliation.

Gulf growth into petrochemicals was, partly, supported by a $300 million credit score bundle assured by Barclays Financial institution Worldwide. Quickly, low cost Saudi petrochemicals started to out-compete British petrochemical industries in Manchester and Scotland. In flip, factories in Manchester, Chester, Lostock, Warton, Preston and Salesbury started producing Twister fighters for Saudi Arabia and Oman. By the mid-1990s, BAE techniques, the British multinational safety and arms firm, had secured a number of key arms export contracts to Saudi Arabia. Gulf capital had discovered a secure haven in British capital markets and a method to harness its burgeoning weapons trade.

Within the early 2000s, GCC buyers started to develop their focus past the buying of weapons produced in Northern arms factories and towards British sports activities groups.

Within the early 2000s, GCC buyers started to develop their focus past the buying of weapons produced in Northern arms factories and towards British sports activities groups. In 2003, the Manchester Night Information reported {that a} mega-rich consortium from Saudi Arabia, Russia and Europe was planning to buy Manchester United.[5] Whereas the sale by no means materialized, GCC curiosity within the North continued. In 2006, a delegation of Saudi politicians visited Manchester to “forge nearer enterprise hyperlinks.”[6] The possible Saudi buyers attended a dinner at Manchester United, the place they had been hosted by the town council, who aimed to showcase the town’s readiness to obtain funding. In the course of the New Labour period below Tony Blair, Saudi investments had been additional buoyed by Blair’s determination to desert a corruption investigation right into a Saudi-British arms deal. If deregulation below Thatcher opened the door for Gulf capital, Blair’s diplomatic manoeuvrings additional smoothed these flows.

In 2008, Saudi Telecom, the Saudi state’s telecommunication providers supplier, signed a long-term cooperation settlement with Manchester United. The five-year settlement would permit the corporate to make use of Manchester United’s brand in its promotional supplies. A decade later, the Saudi state formalized its cooperation with Manchester United, when the state’s Normal Sports activities Authority signed a memorandum of understanding with the membership as a part of the Saudi authorities’s 2030 imaginative and prescient—a partnership that may end in Manchester United lending its experience to Saudi Arabia’s soccer groups. In 2019, Arabian Enterprise reported that Mohammed bin Salman’s $3.9 billion bid to purchase Manchester United had been rejected. Saudi curiosity within the soccer membership was partly a advertising and marketing technique, however it additionally aimed to counterpoint Saudi Arabia’s personal sports activities groups.


Branding Workout routines


GCC investments in Northern soccer feed right into a symbiotic relationship, whereby popularity administration, “sportswashing,” enhances the money-making potential of soccer itself. Furthermore, by proudly owning emotionally resonant and culturally prized Northern property, GCC buyers can search to additional form broader regional politics in methods favorable to future GCC portfolio growth. This level is made effectively in “Manchester Off-Shored,” a brand new analysis paper by students at Sheffield College, which demonstrates how the UAE’s preliminary funding in Manchester Metropolis Soccer Membership noticed Abu Dhabi construct a powerful relationship with the town’s Labour-run council. This partnership culminated in “Manchester Life,” a £1 billion actual property company that got here at a excessive price to public funds. Regardless of the town’s housing disaster, the council additionally dropped its regulatory necessities, and the UAE was allowed to forgo reasonably priced housing obligations. Manchester Life is a extremely extractive enterprise, with rental and gross sales revenue from the venture flowing again into the UAE through a Jersey-based holding firm.[7]

GCC investments in Northern soccer feed right into a symbiotic relationship, whereby popularity administration, “sportswashing,” enhances the money-making potential of soccer itself.

Saudi Arabia’s Newcastle buy would possibly likewise be framed as an try and generate goodwill with native decision-makers, permitting Riyadh to form the native and regional regulatory setting to additional capital diversification and wealth extraction. Certainly, 5 months after the Newcastle takeover, then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson boarded a aircraft to Riyadh, a go to that was instantly mired in controversy. Earlier that week, Saudi Arabia had executed 81 people accused of crimes starting from homicide to membership in banned militant teams. The day Johnson’s jet touched down on the tarmac, the dominion killed three extra. Maya Foa, director of the anti-death penalty group, Reprieve, declared,
“finishing up these executions whereas the chief of a western energy is on Saudi soil was a provocative act designed to flaunt the crown prince’s energy and impunity to the world.”[8]

The sheer scale of the killings was tough to disregard. The final time the dominion had carried out an analogous mass execution was in 1980, after 63 militants had seized management of the Grand Mosque. With disquiet brewing again residence, British Overseas Workplace minister James Cleverly was despatched out to defend his boss. “We have to acknowledge that Saudi is an extremely influential nation within the area [and] it’s a important oil and fuel producer,” he instructed the press.[9] Towards the backdrop of the continued Ukraine battle, he continued, “it’s completely proper that the Prime Minister seeks to alleviate a number of the strain that Putin’s invasion […] has placed on oil and fuel costs.” For anybody questioning the obvious hypocrisy in strengthening a relationship with a regime accused of suppressing human rights and committing battle crimes whereas concurrently initiating a deep tranche of sanctions in opposition to Russia, Cleverly retorted, “equating any nation with the habits of Vladimir Putin is ridiculously distasteful.”[10]

Whereas Cleverly concentrated his response on power safety, this issue is however one strand in an advanced and entangled set of British-Gulf relations that lengthy preceded the invasion of Ukraine. In keeping with the investigative journalism outfit, Declassified UK, “5 extremely repressive Gulf states—Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates— have been in a position to make investments not less than £140bn in Britain,” which is 5 occasions greater than what Russia has invested within the nation.[11]

Boris Johnson’s journey to Riyadh coincided with an announcement by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Fanar group, one of many nation’s largest conglomerates, that they might be making a £1 billion funding in sustainable aviation gasoline manufacturing in Teesside, near Newcastle. This announcement adopted information that Saudi Fundamental Industries Company (SABIC) deliberate to speculate £850 million to reopen a hydrocarbon “cracker” within the North East and decarbonize its operations. Whereas in Saudi Arabia, Boris Johnson reportedly visited SABIC’s innovation middle in Riyadh and met with representatives from Al-Fanar.


An Unsure Future


It’s not solely their entry to grease that makes GCC international locations essential to the British financial system but in addition their willingness to behave as home buyers. As Britain strikes right into a post-Boris Johnson interval, from Liz Truss to Rishi Sunak, it appears unlikely that any successors will search to stem the petrodollar stream. As an alternative, this troubling symbiotic relationship will possible strengthen additional, with an intensified confluence of pursuits between cash-strapped post-industrial Northern English cities and cities, on the one hand, and Gulf funding diversification, on the opposite. Inside this combine, soccer golf equipment—vital native property with emotional energy and cultural significance—are good platforms for Gulf buyers to form native coverage environments. This has already begun to play out in Manchester, the place possession and affiliation with the town’s soccer membership helped clean regulatory attitudes in a far more favorable to capital diversification and wealth extraction. Whether or not these investments will achieve reversing the North-South divide—and at what price—stays to be seen.


[Philip Proudfoot is an anthropologist at the Institute for Development Studies. Ali Reda, a pen name, is a Lebanese activist and writer.]


This text seems in MER concern 304 “Soccer—Politics and Passions.”




[1] Caroline Wheeler, “Boris Johnson’s ‘Complicated and Meaningless’ Levelling-up Slogan Faces Axe,” The Occasions, July 17, 2022.

[2] Sam Vibrant, Fortress London: Why We Must Save the Nation From Its Capital (Manchester: Harper North, 2022), pp. 264–85.

[3] “Constructed to Final: Why Gulf funding in UK actual property will endure and develop,” BLME, March 2022, p. 6.

[4] “Gulf funding in UK actual property set to extend, predicts BLME,” ZAWYA, July 12, 2022.

[5] “MANCHESTER United followers are plotting a Purple revolution to cease the membership falling into the fingers of a Chelsea- fashion tycoon,” Manchester Night Information, September 18, 2003.

[6] “Metropolis’s Saudi Mission,” Manchester Night Information, January 19, 2006.

[7] Richard Goulding, Adam Leaver and Jonathan Silver, Manchester Off-Shored (Sheffield: Centripetal Cities; City Institute; CRAFIC, 2022), p. 7.

[8] Alexander MacDonald, “Rights Teams Condemn Boris Johnson’s Journey to Saudi Arabia Following Mass Execution,” Center East Eye, March 16, 2022.

[9] Kevin Schofield, “James Cleverly: It’s ‘Ridiculously Distasteful’ To Evaluate Russia With Saudi Arabia,” Yahoo finance, March 17, 2022.

[10] Ibid.,

[11] Molly Antigone Corridor and Mark Curtis, “Whereas Media Focuses on Russian Cash UK Ministers Permit Gulf Tyrannies to Make investments £140bn In Britain,” Declassified UK (April 9, 2021).


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