Crippling deindustrialisation and local politicians paved the way for Arab buyers to take over the two British cities' football clubs.
Manchester City and Newcastle United's takeovers by funds linked to UAE and Saudi Arabia have been detailed in a new report.
The report 'Easy Cities to Buy' reveals how economic austerity by the UK government left industrial cities like Newcastle and Manchester in dire need of investment, with football clubs partly seeking out sovereign funds in the Middle East.
The report, published by the London-based human rights organisation FairSquare, used anonymous interviews and existing public investigations to study the impact of sportswashing in the two northern cities.
Sportwashing involves using sports to create a positive image of a country or group, with sporting events or teams enhancing their reputation on the global stage.
Local politicians willingly chose to remain silent on the murky human rights records of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to its authors.
Both countries have come under fire for suppressing critical voices and political opponents both at home and abroad.
The report also claimed local politicians in Manchester were "conspicuously silent" on the rights concerns, while their counterparts in Newcastle "allowed themselves to be manipulated."
"If you are an autocratic state and you see football as being potentially useful to you from a public relations perspective, then politicians' silence is a major boost for you. You don't have to work particularly hard to defend your reputation," Nick McGeehan, co-author of the report, told Euronews.
The report comes on the back of a potential takeover of Manchester United by Qatar's Sheikh Jassim – a project that resembles the previous two takeovers in many ways, says the report.
'UK government rolled out the red carpet'
The report also details how the British government "rolled out a red carpet" for Saudi Arabia's takeover of Newcastle United, lobbying to allow the takeover and then making things easy for the new owners locally.
Authorities facilitated these purchases, the report notes, to leverage the relationship for investments in other commercial sectors.
After an initial attempt by Saudi's Public Investment Fund (PIF) to buy the club was rejected by the Premier League, top-down lobbying ensured the bid was completed in October 2021.
An investigation into the saga in April 2023 by The Athletic revealed several emails between UK diplomats, the Prime Minister, and Saudi's Crown Prince to push the deal forward.
"The fact that the British government was so active in pushing the Newcastle deal, to get them in the city, was incredibly significant," explained McGeehan, adding local politicians helped by "making them feel welcome in the city."
At the local level, the report reveals politicians, regardless of their backgrounds, were influenced to not raise issues about the new owners.
"Left-leaning secular or liberal politicians are generally quite minded to raise human rights issues. But there was absolutely nothing," McGeehan said.
Manchester City Council said the owners of Manchester City are "not synonymous to the state" in response to the report, claiming it reflects a "one-sided perspective".
Media's failure to keep checks
The report adds local media was "neutral" in coverage of human rights issues and upon the politicians' silence.
Journalists in both regions stressed only the positive aspects of the respective takeovers, leaving the coverage of Saudi Arabia and UAE's human rights record to the national media, according to the report.
"I think it was the response of the media that surprised me, even more, the fact that the media didn't want to cover it," McGeehan said, adding these takeovers have "eroded" the local democratic institutions.
The FairSquare report also warns the lack of scrutiny from well-resourced local media outlets can result in the continued exploitation of football as a political vehicle.
While all ownership models, including US hedge funds and billionaires' investments, can be criticised, state ownerships carry the worst human rights record, it adds.
"Buying a football club is a far more effective way to burnish your reputation because it allows you to tell a story about yourself without attracting scrutiny," McGeehan said.
Manchester City was purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group, owned by royal family member Sheikh Mansour in September 2008. The Newcastle United takeover was completed in October of 2021, by a consortium of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF).