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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Government endorses £3 billion investment from Saudi aimed at sustaining jobs despite human rights controversy

Newcastle pitches as 'gateway to Saudi' after claim of £3bn to 'sustain' 2,000 North East jobs

The Government has championed a £3 billion investment in the North East from Saudi Arabia that it is claimed will sustain 2,000 jobs.

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden made the announcement on a major trade mission to Riyadh, which he hailed as an “important moment for British business” and which includes a specific panel about Newcastle promoting the city as a “gateway to Saudi through innovative trade and investment”.

However, the Cabinet Office has not responded to requests from the Local Democracy Reporting Service to clarify what that investment relates to or where the affected jobs are.

Mr Dowden’s statement came on the same day that details of emails between senior figures at Newcastle City Council and Newcastle United were published, revealing a push from city officials to secure more money from and closer ties with the Gulf nation following the Saudi-led takeover of the football club.

Human rights campaigners have raised concerns about the prospect of increasing ties between Tyneside and Saudi Arabia, with Amnesty International warning this week that such relationships can “distract attention” from the kingdom’s “appalling human rights record”.

Mr Dowden’s visit, alongside a 450-strong delegation of British businesses, came after a BBC report last week claiming that Saudi forces had been permitted to use lethal force to clear land for the building of a multibillion-pound desert city.

A press release promoting the two-day UK-Saudi summit highlighted that “figures to be announced by the Deputy Prime Minister show the North East alone stands to benefit from a further £3 billion of ongoing investment from Saudi Arabia, helping to sustain c.2000 jobs in the region”.

It added that the Great Futures conference is “expected to secure a constellation of investment across critical sectors: from financial services, to higher education”, but did not specify what the North East investment relates to.

Newcastle United co-owner Amanda Staveley, Newcastle Gateshead Initiative CEO Sarah Green, Newcastle United Women head coach Becky Langley, Northumbria University vice-chancellor Andy Long, North East Screen CEO Alison Gwynn are all listed among the speakers at the Riyadh summit.

On the schedule for day two of the event on Wednesday is a panel entitled “Focus On Newcastle Upon Tyne: Building A Gateway To Saudi Through Innovative Trade And Investment”.

The agenda for that discussion states that it will cover how the takeover of Newcastle United, led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), has created a “unique opportunity between Saudi Arabia and the North East of England and benefiting the wider UK, for increased levels of trade and investment in sectors such as hospitality and tourism, creative and knowledge-based economies including health and life sciences, data and AI, advanced renewable energy and even space exploration”.

On Tuesday, the Local Democracy Reporting Service published details of emails between high-ranking figures at the council and NUFC which revealed efforts to use the 2021 takeover of the football club to develop new ties from Newcastle, North East businesses, and universities to Saudi Arabia.

The messages, obtained via a freedom of information request from the NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing group, included a briefing written from council director Michelle Percy for Ms Staveley ahead of a meeting with investment minister Lord Dominic Johnson in April 2023.

That note, from April 2023, stated that “there is an ambition for Newcastle to attract further investment from the [Gulf] region” following the NUFC takeover, to increase exports from the North East, and bring in tourists.

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Campaigns, warned that “when it comes to attracting Saudi money there is no such thing as a free lunch”.

He added: “Newcastle City Council should be careful who it approaches for money – this type of relationship with Saudi Arabia aids its efforts to distract attention from its appalling human rights record from a crackdown that has seen women imprisoned for demanding equality to a record number of executions.”

The cache of emails also detailed how Ms Staveley was asked by the council to intervene at the highest levels of the UK Government during a row over funding for the Tyne Bridge’s restoration and how city Labour leader Nick Kemp urged the football club to pay more than £23 million to fund free school meals.

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