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Amnesty International call on Newcastle fans as Saudi Arabia PIF takeover saga continues

8 months ago

Can we talk both global and local/regional at the same time? – we really should …

Let’s not just always go for the circled wagons and “southeners/London/Manchester and Liverpool clubs etc wants to do NUFC in by keeping the club down and deprived of cash” kind of motto in this debated or discussion of NUFC and a potential(ly retabled) Saudi takeover.

I am writing to you from the Newcastle Amnesty upon Tyne Amnesty International Local Group, about the still – I guess – potential takeover of NUFC by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The Premier League is formally on record (now) to say that human rights considerations made no difference to this, or any other previous takeover fitness rulings they have made, nor that there has been any government interference (which, if one reads the recent context would in any case have been hardly against it?). That can obviously only be known with transparency, which – as the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) has recently been pointing out – can only come from all sides and needs – in this context of major commerce and potential litigation – also satisfy legal process.

Indeed, Amnesty International (UK) is calling for the Premier League to revise its Owners’ and Directors’ test to extend the exclusionary criteria to include complicity in violations of international human rights law and conduct that is in breach of the Premier League’s anti-discrimination policy.

The proposed revised test, framed by a leading company law QC, asserts that the revision proposed by Amnesty is reasonable, measured, goes with the grain of best practice, and could be implemented without cutting across any other elements of the Premier League’s rules. Such a test would in future ensure a level playing field with regard to the human rights record of States attempting to take over a Premier League club.

I hope transparency will be there soon on the process there was – but still think the decision should have been a “No” on a range of points.

I am not saying the current Directors and Ownership test actually bears out the points I am most concerned about, and I am not a media or commercial lawyer (the alleged ‘piracy’ and the banning of the PL’s major business party in the Gulf region by Saudi Arabia that will also eventually unravel), and also may only be part of a geo-political issue which includes wider politics and indeed war (and, immorally to my mind, UK arms exports to Saudi and the region, including in a protracted Yemen war context).

I sympathise with Newcastle United fans who have been left on tenterhooks for a long time now, and want an explanation as to why the Premier League has delayed its decision, with the PIF-led consortium having backed out for now at least.

I live not too far from the ground, go on occasion to matches, and wish to see NUFC play well and do well.

I am also aware that many Newcastle United fans feel that their club has been unfairly picked on in view of Sheikh Mansour’s ownership of Manchester City and several commercial partnerships between Saudi Arabia and Manchester United.

Amnesty International (globally, in the UK and the Newcastle upon Tyne group, including myself) is not against Saudi companies or those from other countries investing in sports or in any other business enterprises in the UK or elsewhere. Where we draw the line is at the motivation and capacity of the Saudi Government, including through fully-owned state investment vehicles, to use its relationship with sporting bodies as a means of diverting attention from its human rights record.

When Saudi Arabia hosts prestigious sporting events in the fields of boxing, horseracing, golf, tennis and football, then we view this in terms of its attempts to improve its image while continuing to violate human rights with impunity. This is why Amnesty intervened at the time of the Anthony Joshua fight. When PIF attempts to buy into the glamour and prestige of the Premier League by owning NUFC, then we view this in a similar light.

Amnesty is aware that Man U has a growing number of revenue streams arising from strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia that could have a ‘sports-washing’ effect and could lead to a fully-fledged takeover bid in future, in which case the same issues would apply as with NUFC.

We are monitoring this and will respond as and when the situation arises.

We are also aware that currently there is one Premier League Club, Manchester City, whose beneficial owner is a Government, in so far as Sheikh Mansour is the deputy Prime Minister of UAE and a member of the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi. The Manchester City takeover occurred in 2008 amid much less scrutiny than would be the case today.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, has publicly said that the cases of NUFC and Sheffield United are “very different”. The Toon deal would give ownership to the sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi state, which has a terrible human rights record, while Prince Abdullah is a private businessman.

What of the city/region then ?

It is clear that Newcastle City Council (NCC) needs to secure investments into the city. But NCC also needs to consider the possible human rights implications of an association with the Saudi government.

The Saudi authorities have been locking up and torturing peaceful women’s rights activists while a prominent journalist was brutally murdered in Istanbul, alongside other gross human rights violations. As a public body, NCC has an obligation to avoid involvement which can be see to condone human rights violations.

We call on it to assess the risk of this happening in the event of a revived Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) buyout of Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC). There’s no free lunch here. By co-branding with the Saudi government through its investment vehicle PIF, NCC risks tying its hands over being able to take a stance on human rights, for example over adopting ethical procurement and investment policies.

New investment is obviously welcome but it should not come at the expense of drawing attention to the jailings (after unfair and political trials), torture and sexual abuse of peaceful activists/ dissidents, executions and crushing of basic human rights and freedom of expression.

For more information on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, go here.

The stakes are very high with the proposed takeover bid of Newcastle United, which is why Saudi Arabia was trying to exert as much pressure as possible on the Premier League (“The Saudi Castle” online marketing campaign, for instance), with the assistance of those who want to see the deal resurrected – of course PLC capital / Amanda Staveley and the Reuben brothers – and are putting pressure on the Premier League to this effect.

The stakes are high because Saudi Arabia wants to deflect attention from the women human rights defenders who are languishing in prison for advocating an end to systematic discrimination against women. Some of these women have been tortured. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman also wants people to forget about the brutal extrajudicial execution of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the ongoing persecution of critics of the government, the flogging and ten year prison sentence meted out to the blogger Raif Badawi for his role in a website enabling social and political debate, the confessions extracted through torture, the mass trials that have been taking place without due process, and the widespread use of the death penalty.

As the local Amnesty International group, we appreciate the Geordie community’s ongoing commitment to human rights, and hope that Toon fans will also bear these issues in mind in determining your response to current events affecting NUFC (who clearly need new, and better, owners – on the basis of a range of issues, not just money).

As Chair of the Amnesty International Newcastle upon Tyne group, I would say to you:

“Our slogan is ‘Support the team, not the regime’.

“We’re calling on Toon fans to show they care about human rights, as well as a return to great football at St James Park.

“As fans we can’t control who owns our club, but we can do something about the blatant sportswashing that the Saudi takeover represents.

“Newcastle United is a great club and Newcastle upon Tyne a great city – both are full of pride, passion and values. One of those values is a belief in human rights and human dignity, which is what we’re all about.

“I would be cheering the team on under its new owners, but I’m also calling for the release of Loujain al-Hathloul and other jailed Saudi women’s rights activists.”

We also ask that you join calls for the unconditional release of Loujian Al-Hathoul and other women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, who remain in detention for peacefully advocating for human rights change.


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