Newcastle will relish the return of Champions League football to St James’ Park, but as the Saudi-backed Magpies take on Qatari-owned PSG… Is it Toon pride, or are they pawns in a new game?
- St James’ Park will host a Champions League game for the first time in 20 years
- It comes against PSG, with the likes of Kylian Mbappe set to be in action
- But is it a proud moment for the Magpies, or a Middle East geopolitical derby?
For some it is the return to of Champions League football to St James’ Park for the first time in 20 years but for others it the ultimate Middle East geopolitical derby.
For romantics, it is Newcastle United taking on Paris St-Germain, Kylian Mbappe against Bruno Guimaraes.
But for those immersed in realpolitik, it is Saudi Arabia v Qatar, a rivalry that needs no stoking given that the larger of those Arabian kingdoms spent the best part of four years trying to grind Qatar into submission, cutting off diplomatic and trade relations.
On Wednesday night, St James’ Park plays host to one of the most-anticipated fixtures of the group stages and two of the most powerful men in the Middle East, representatives of their rulers, Newcastle chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and PSG President Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
Bizarrely the enmity between the nations means you will not be able to watch the game legally anywhere in Saudi Arabia.
St James’ Park will host a Champions League game for the first time in two decades on Wednesday
Kylian Mbappe’s PSG face Newcastle in a match that could be billed as a Middle Eastern derby
In fact, no Newcastle games are broadcast in the Saudi state other than through pirates streams because beIN Sports, the Qatari-based broadcaster which owns all the rights, remains blocked there in an ongoing trade dispute.
There is a multi-billion pound compensation claim lodged by beIN against Saudi Arabia with the United Nations Commission on International Trade. Al-Khelaifi is also chairman of beIN while Al-Rumayyan is described as a ‘sitting minister of the Saudi government’ by his lawyers in US courts, despite the fact that PIF have given the Premier League ‘legally binding assurances’ that the Saudi government had no control over the club.
At its height the dispute, which officially ran from 2017-2021, became so bitter that Saudi Arabia threatened to build a canal along the border, effectively setting Qatar adrift as an island in the Arabian Gulf.
Sixty per cent of Qatar’s food was imported via Saudi and other nations supporting the blockade, meaning it rapidly had to establish new trade routes just to feed its population. Though now officially ended, the TV blockade remains.
The enmity was forged in the 2011 Arab Spring, where people around the Arab world rose up against aristocratic ruling elites, an event covered in depth by Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, seen by the Saudi rulers and other monarchical states in the region as fuelling the flames of rebellion, which they were focused on containing within their own land.
When Qatar recognised Syrian rebels over President Assad in the ongoing Syrian War, that proved a step too far.
But though the blockade ended in 2021 and a brief rapprochement seemed possible around last year’s Qatar’s World Cup, when Saudi Crown Prince and de factor ruler Mohammed bin Salman wore a Qatari scarf and embraced Qatari leader Emir Sheikh Tamin at the opening game, the beIN Sport satellite was again switched off in Saudi Arabia during the World Cup.
Newcastle chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan has been described as a ‘sitting minister of the Saudi government’ by his lawyers in US courts, although PIF have given the Premier League ‘legally binding assurances’ that the Saudi government had no control over the club
PSG President Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also chairman of Qatari-based broadcaster beIN Sports, which owns the rights to Wednesday’s game and is blocked in Saudi Arabia
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