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Is Rugby the next target of Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing tactic?

Telegraph Sport have reported that the Saudi Arabian Investment group that bought a majority share of Newcastle United, has shown interest in acquiring investment stakes in four Premiership Rugby clubs including Gloucester Rugby.

In recent years, countries such as Saudi Arabia have invested billions of pounds into sporting organisations and events, a tactic that has always been coined with the term ‘sportswashing’.

Sportswashing (Cambridge Dictionary) – The practice of an organization, a government, a country, etc. , supporting sport or organizing sports events as a way to improve its reputation.

In simpler terms, Saudi Arabia has a track record of using their substantial financial resources to create news that takes away from any of the bad press that they have received, such as their human rights violations.

A prime example of sportswashing is the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar, which was heavily debated at the time regarding whether or not a country such as Qatar should be allowed to host an event as big and culturally significant as the Football World Cup, due to their poor working and living conditions.

It has become clear in recent times that Rugby Union as a whole and especially in the UK, is under enormous financial pressure as previous loans and a tough economic environment continue to sink British clubs into millions of pounds worth of debt.

Most clubs in the Premiership, England’s elite competition for Rugby, are seeking significant investment as they fight not only to compete at the top level, but also to stay afloat following the demise and bankruptcy of three Premiership clubs in Worcester Warriors, Wasps, and London Irish.

Gloucester, Newcastle, Leicester and Northampton are the most heavily rumoured to be involved in a £60 million Saudi investment, which would likely boost their on-field performances with the injection of cash and players, but should they take them up on the offer?

Morally, no. I don’t believe that Rugby should allow itself to be used as pawn in a game of sportswashing chess.

Football now has a rather large history with it, and investment from these countries is fairly common as we’ve seen with clubs such as PSG, Manchester City and most recently Newcastle United.

Rugby is a working-class game and one that puts a strong focus on safety, so to take significant investment from Gulf states, I believe goes against the morals of the Rugby community and one that I would like to think these club’s would seriously consider before associating themselves with such countries.

Although, it has to be acknowledged how attractive a proposition it may be to these clubs. Not only will the goal be to have a bigger budget that in turn should bring in better players and hopefully results, but the investment could also keep hundreds of people in their jobs and do a lot of good for the clubs that have been approached.

I feel that Rugby as a community will have to take a joint stance. Will these clubs help these immoral states play their PR game, which will admittedly bring a large cash injection into the sport which can only do good for the game, or will they turn away the opportunity knowing that without it they could soon face the path that Wasps, London Irish and Worcester Warriors took.

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