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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Newcastle Council and NUFC face backlash after emails reveal Saudi investment ties amid human rights concerns

Emails reveal push for more Saudi investment in Newcastle as human rights campaigners issue warning to city council.

Senior figures at Newcastle City Council and Newcastle United are using the takeover of the club to push for closer ties and more investment in the city from Saudi Arabia, it has emerged.

Emails between top civic centre directors and the NUFC hierarchy have revealed efforts to use the Saudi-led ownership of the football club to develop new ties from Newcastle, North East businesses, and universities to the Gulf state.

Human rights campaigners have previously raised concerns about Newcastle’s Saudi links due to alleged human rights abuses by the country’s regime and are now warning Newcastle City Council that “this type of relationship with Saudi Arabia aids its efforts to distract attention from its appalling human rights record”.

The emails, obtained by the NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing group (NUFCFAS) and seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, indicate a close relationship that has also seen the council ask Magpies co-owner Amanda Staveley to intervene at the highest levels of the UK government in its efforts to secure funding for the restoration of the Tyne Bridge and city Labour leader Nick Kemp urge the club to pay more than £23 million to fund free school meals.

The council said it will “always look at opportunities to drive investment” that “ultimately puts money in the pockets of all our residents” – and that it was for the UK government, rather than local leaders, to address human rights concerns.

Meanwhile, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden will reportedly use a visit to Saudi Arabia this week to say that £3 billion of investment from Saudi Arabia will help sustain around 2,000 jobs in the North East.

Among more than 200 pages of emails released under a freedom of information request is a briefing from the council’s director of investment and growth, Michelle Percy, for Magpies co-owner Amanda Staveley ahead of her meeting with Lord Johnson, the UK’s minister for investment.

That note, from April 2023, states 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.

It adds that the council is “working closely” with teams from the UK’s Office for Investment and the Department for Business and Trade in Saudi Arabia and suggests that the North East could create a “knowledge exchange programme” with Saudi Arabia around tourism and develop a “joint energy institute led by North East and Saudi Universities”.

It also suggests an invitation to a Newcastle United match and a visit to Riyadh or Jeddah, aided by Ms Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners and the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), that would “include key North East stakeholders to further relationships”.

The PIF, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, became the 80% owners of NUFC in 2021 when the club was sold by Mike Ashley.

Ms Percy also asked Ms Staveley and Jamie Reuben in 2022 to speak on an Invest Newcastle panel at the prestigious MIPIM property conference in Cannes, a briefing document for which describes the takeover as “one of the biggest investment opportunities Newcastle has seen in decades”.

Leading human rights organisation Amnesty International has cautioned city leaders against pursuing closer ties with Saudi Arabia.

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.”

Tyne Bridge and school meals requests

The emails also reveal that Ms Staveley lobbied the UK government on the city council’s behalf earlier this year, when North East leaders were pleading with the Department for Transport to release money for the restoration of the Tyne Bridge.

After Ms Percy asked the NUFC co-owner for her help in “reaching out to the PM and ministers at a high level” during the dispute, Ms Staveley copies her into an email to unnamed officials outlining the council’s “considerable frustration” and asking if there is “anything we could do to expedite the process of releasing this vital funding”.

Further correspondence between the council and the club shows that Cllr Kemp asked in late 2022 for NUFC to pay £23.6 million to fund one hot meal per day for all school-aged children in the city for a year.

He argued that the move, designed to help city families struggling with the cost of living crisis and address Newcastle’s high rates of child poverty, would be “an amazing act, one never forgotten, by the city council and indeed the city” and would give “huge kudos to the club ownership”.

The football club did not agree to the request, with CEO Darren Eales writing to say that it had set up a programme of community support itself – including a cash donation to the West End Foodbank and opening the Newcastle United Foundation’s NUCASTLE building as a warm space during the winter.

‘Time to make good on pre-takeover promises’

NUFCFAS recently protested ahead of the Magpies’ St James’ Park clash with Sheffield United, urging supporters to hold up posters to show solidarity with Leeds University student Salma al-Shehab – a Saudi citizen and mother of two serving a 27-year prison sentence over critical tweets.

The group said the revelations contained within the cache of emails showed it was time for Tyneside’s political leaders “to make good on pre-takeover promises to ‘keep talking about human rights’”.

They added: “NUFCFAS urges Newcastle City Council and Tyneside MPs to publicly condemn human rights abuses by the Saudi state, and take up specific cases when asked by Saudi human rights activists with football club chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan – who is the governor of the PIF and has been described as a ‘sitting minister’ of the Saudi government. The council should host at the earliest opportunity a meeting with a delegation of Saudi human rights advocates in Newcastle.”

The city council told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that Newcastle is a “diverse, inclusive, and tolerant city” and that it expected “ all organisations based in Newcastle to share those important values”

A spokesperson added: “As a City of Sanctuary, we share concerns about human rights issues in countries across the world. However, it is important to recognise it is for government to take on the role of addressing those concerns, at a national level.

“We have also made clear in the past that we do not think it is fair to blame those involved in the day-to-day management of Newcastle United, themselves a Football Club of Sanctuary, with alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

“We have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Newcastle United. The club is ingrained into the fabric of our city, and they make a huge contribution both on and off the pitch.

“The club is a source of immense pride for supporters and a successful Newcastle United can only be a good thing for our residents, and the wider city region.

“Like local authorities across the country, we will always look at opportunities to drive investment and growth to benefit all our residents. Newcastle is not alone in this.

“International investment creates jobs, opportunity and boosts the city economy, and that ultimately puts money in the pockets of all our residents.

“It is an important responsibility, one we take seriously, and we will continue to work collaboratively to attract international investment from across the world.”

Newcastle United Football Club declined to comment.

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