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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

NUFC anti-sportswashing group calls for ‘push back’ against Saudi owners ahead of match protest

Newcastle United fans campaigning against the Saudi ownership of the club have renewed calls for Tyneside’s leaders to speak up over the state’s human rights record, ahead of a protest next week.

The NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing (NUFCFAS) group has pleaded with MPs and councillors to “push back”, more than two years after the club’s controversial takeover.

The Magpies are 80% owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and activists have accused the regime of using football to distract attention from alleged human rights abuses.

A protest is planned next Saturday, 27 April, when Newcastle play at St James’ Park against Sheffield United, who also have links to Saudi Arabia through their owner Prince Abdullah.

NUFCFAS is calling on supporters to hold up posters in the 27th minute of the match 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 has also called for a street near St James’ Park to be renamed in memory of Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent journalist who was murdered in 2018 by Saudi agents.

In a letter to sent to city councillors and North East MPs this week, NUFCFAS urged local politicians to support those actions, publicly condemn human rights abuses by the Saudi state, and take up specific cases 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 campaigners previously protested against two Saudi Arabian international matches being staged in Newcastle last year and brought activist Lina al-Hathloul to the city to address a public meeting.

They said this week that the region’s politicians “have a duty to clearly show that we as a region stand on the side of human rights” and should “correct the reality that political representatives have done very little to push back against the sportswashing project of the Saudi regime which owns Newcastle United Football Club”.

Jamie Driscoll. Image: Department of Transportation and Tyne and Wear combined authority

Their calls have been backed by the independent North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, who told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “Murder, torture and wider human rights abuses are morally wrong. I will call them out, wherever they are, without fear or favour. I’m also very clear that the Newcastle United fans have every right to support their club and the team’s continued success on the field. Ultimately the fans are the lifeblood of any club and I would like to see more involvement and power in their hands.”

However, Newcastle East MP Nick Brown said he did not “approve of or support the approach that this campaign group is taking”.

Mr Brown, who now sits as an independent after quitting the Labour Party, added: “I think it is very unfair for them to always focus on Newcastle United FC when discussing the commercial and industrial holdings of the Saudi Arabian investment vehicles.

“I think this is the wrong way to go about consolidating relationships between our country and Saudi Arabia.”

A spokesperson for Newcastle City Council said it shared concerns about human rights abuses but that it was not fair to “blame those involved in the day-to-day management of Newcastle United”.

But NUFCFAS founding member John Hird insisted that the group “addresses concerns about the horrendous human rights record of the Saudi regime towards the 80% owners of the club and not the staff who work for it or indeed our fellow supporters”.

Mr Hird told the LDRS: “Pre-takeover, some North East politicians and spokespeople for fan groups said they would continue to talk about human rights and that they would be a critical friend to the Saudi owners. Three years on, this clearly, that has not happened.

“NUFCFAS works closely with Saudi human rights groups and we have passed on petitions from the families of victims to the region’s political representatives asking them to raise their cases with the Newcastle Chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan who is after all a minister in the Saudi government who answers directly to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

“Outside of the Tyneside football bubble there is an impression that North East political representatives are not taking seriously their role to call out the human rights abuses of the owners of the football club. This needs to be corrected.

“In the past, Newcastle City Council broke off relations with China due to accusations of torture by the Chinese state. Should not the Saudi state be held to the same standards by the council?”

In 2022, the city council severed ties with its sister city Taiyuan due to the Chinese regime’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

A civic centre spokesperson said this week that taking up human rights issues with Saudi Arabia was “not the role of a local authority”, but that it hoped the Government would “continue to take opportunities to raise these”.

They added: “We pride ourselves on being a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant city. We expect all organisations based in Newcastle to share those important values.

“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.

“We understand the position of this supporter’s group and, as a City of Sanctuary, share concerns about human rights issues in countries across the world.

“However, we have 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.”

The LDRS also contacted Newcastle Labour MPs Chi Onwurah and Catherine McKinnell for a response, while North Tyneside’s Mary Glindon has told NUFCFAS that she will raise their concerns with fellow MPs.

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