Dictators take a winning lead as Newcastle bend the knee to Saudi princes

Simon Tisdall

The Tyneside Premier League takeover, Putin’s gas pipeline and Xi’s disdain for US talks make an alarming hat-trick against the west

Russia's President Putin and Saudi Arabia's Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi de-facto leader Mohammed bin Salman meeting at the Kremlin in 2017. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Getty ImagesPresident Vladimir Putin and the Saudi de-facto leader Mohammed bin Salman meeting at the Kremlin in 2017. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Getty Images

Sun 10 Oct 2021 02.00 EDT

It has been a winning week for dictators. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman all have cause to cheer after weaknesses, divisions and double standards among the western democracies were harshly exposed. If US president Joe Biden is correct and a freedom versus autocracy struggle is playing out around the world, then the away team just went 3-0 up – starting at St James’ Park, home to Newcastle United FC.

The Geordies’ totemic war-cry of “Howay the lads!” may soon be drowned out by the slogans of marketing men, the silky swish of Arab robes and the exorbitant demands of imported stars as Riyadh-upon-Tyne bends the knee to the petrodollar princes. Many Magpies fans welcome the £300m Saudi takeover of their beleaguered, cash-starved club. That’s understandable. Or is it? Supporters know the ethical implications are insupportable. But they want the success money can buy.

The Premier League says it has assurances the Saudi state will not interfere in the running of the club. That’s a bit like telling hungry, traumatised Yemeni children the war is over, when actually it isn’t. Crown prince Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, chairs its sovereign wealth fund, which has acquired an 80% stake. This is the same man the US accuses of plotting the notorious murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. He denies it – but he’s never faced a court.

Salman makes no apologies for Saudi abuses that Amnesty International says include systemic imprisonment without trial of human rights defenders, persecution of women’s rights activists and “extensive” use of the death penalty. Instead, he has sought international respectability for his odious regime, for example by cosying up to Donald Trump and the Israeli right. The Newcastle “sportswashing” exercise is a continuation of that shabby policy. 1-0.

There’s a memorable photo of Salman and Vladimir Putin chatting during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It’s unclear whether they are enjoying the match or swapping offshore banking tips. In any case Putin, too, had a big laugh at the west’s expense last week when wholesale gas prices spiked, threatening a Europe-wide energy crisis. Life could be so much easier, his lackeys smirked, if the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was up and running.

The new 1,230km underwater pipeline from Russia to Germany was finally completed on 10 September after delays caused by US sanctions. Washington, Ukraine and eastern EU states such as Poland had consistently argued it would give Putin a stranglehold on energy supplies. Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor, consistently refused to cancel it, regarding it as necessary for keeping industrial and business costs down.

If the authoritarian tide is to be turned, western governments must take a clear stand on issues where, too often, they duck and dive

Last week, sooner than expected, Europe was confronted with what energy dependency on Moscow may truly mean – surging consumer prices, ruined national budgets, political ructions and the prospect of worse to come this winter unless – as the Kremlin unsubtly hints – EU approval to start piping Nord Stream gas is swiftly granted. For a fractious transatlantic alliance, this fiasco is a sharp kick in the shin. Putin sent a geopolitical screamer flying into the top corner. 2-0.

Autocracy’s third symbolic strike on goal was delivered, bizarrely, behind closed doors in a Zurich airport hotel room last Wednesday. Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, and Chinese officials agreed to arrange talks between Xi and Biden before year’s end. This sounds innocuous enough. But stand back a moment and consider what’s actually going on.

Nine months into his presidency, Biden has yet to meet Xi, his designated superpower nemesis, during which time relations have dangerously deteriorated. Xi had previously rejected Biden’s offer of a face-to-face summit. Yet having travelled to Switzerland, Sullivan still only obtained agreement “in principle” and no firm date for the talks – which, if they happen, will be by video. Beijing’s disdainful attitude is humiliating and instructive.

Not so long ago, a Chinese leader might have jumped at the chance of a meet-and-greet with the US president. Not any more. The balance of power has shifted. The immediate context is rising Chinese military pressure on Taiwan that has left Washington rattled and unsure how to respond. In contrast, China appears ever more confident. Xi is said to believe the west, and the US especially, are in irreversible decline, and that time is on his side. So why rush to talk? Let Biden stew. 3-0.

This gloomy scoreline is not the end of the game. Xi is prone to over-reaching. There are signs of fatal miscalculation. His one-man show faces multiple problems at home and growing hostility abroad. Rather than rise further, analysts suggest, China may already have “peaked”. At the same time, Xi would be well advised not to underestimate America. Likewise, Putin and Salman should savour the moment. Theirs may not be the last laugh.

The Saudi regime murdered my fiance. It can't be allowed to buy Newcastle United | Hatice Cengiz

If the authoritarian tide is to be turned, western governments must take a clear stand on issues where, too often, they duck and dive. The Saudi takeover at Newcastle should be frozen pending a review of the rules (or a radical change of policy in Riyadh). Europe must unite, and diversify supply, to prevent Russian energy blackmail. And Biden should stop worrying about talks about talks and provide Taiwan with unambiguous security guarantees, possibly a mutual defence treaty. Who knows, maybe Aukus could become Taukus or Aukust?

As the Pandora Papers demonstrate, western governments are their own worst enemies when, facilitating financial skulduggery, they help dictators and autocrats around the world rob their own people, launder ill-gotten gains and profit from the denial of democracy and freedom. As the indomitable denizens of Newcastle’s old Leazes End knew well, such avoidable own goals are intolerable. Politicians who allow them should be forced to take an early bath.


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