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The New Arab

Human rights campaigners urge Newcastle United to reject huge buyout from 'brutal dictatorship' Saudi Arabia

MbS spearheaded a military campaign in Yemen five years ago [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 April, 2020

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Reports emerged earlier this week that the potential Saudi takeover of the Newcastle football club was edging closer, after legal documents were lodged with the UK's regulator of companies.

Human rights activists have urged England football club Newcastle United to reject a £300 million ($377 million) takeover bid from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, slamming it as another attempt by Riyadh to distract attention away from the de-facto ruler's numerous abuses of power.

Reports emerged earlier this week that the potential takeover of the Premier League club was edging closer, after legal documents were lodged with the UK's regulator of companies.

Rights groups have criticised the deal, saying Saudi Arabia is again trying to use sports as a PR tool to hide away its abysmal human rights record. They have urged Newcastle United not to become a "propaganda vehicle for a brutal dictatorship".

"If this deal is finalised then it will be regarded as an endorsement of the Saudi royal family, and of the Crown Prince in particular," Andrew Smith, a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade, told The New Arab.

"It would provide a legitimacy and a propaganda vehicle for a brutal dictatorship that is still trying to rehabilitate its awful reputation following the bombardment of Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi," he said.

Saudi Arabia spearheaded a military campaign in Yemen five years ago, pushing the impoverished country to the brink of famine.

The Saudi-led war - identified by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis - has shown no signs of abating despite the coronavirus pandemic. It has so far killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and displaced millions.

"Right now, despite the Covid-19 threat, Saudi forces are still at war in Yemen, where they have inflicted the worst humanitarian crisis in the world," Smith told The New Arab.

"The Saudi authorities need to be held to account, not rewarded with the ownership of a football team."

The deal would be a major development in Riyadh's increasing involvement in sport, which has seen it stage the recent world heavyweight title between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz and announce plans for a new Formula One racetrack that will host a Grand Prix in 2023.

"There is nothing new about a repressive regime using sports to its advantage," Smith said. "It is a tactic that many have used over the years, mainly when they are trying to buy positive publicity and divert from their own atrocities and abuses."

Earlier this week Human Rights Watch also urged Newcastle to step away from the deal, which the rights group said was a "part of the long-term strategy of Mohammed Bin Salman's regime to 'sportswash' abuses". 

In a February report, Amnesty International said: "In recent months, Saudi Arabia has worked hard at 'sportswashing' its reputation – trying to use the glamour of sport as a public relations tool to improve its international image."

Saudi Arabia has sought to repair its image after the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate, which battered the reputation of the 33-year-old crown prince, who controls all major levers of power.

The murder tipped the kingdom into its worst diplomatic crisis since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, in which most of the hijackers were identified as Saudi nationals.

Read also: 'Grim milestone': Saudi Arabia carries out 800th execution since 2015

The kingdom is also frequently criticised by human rights advocates who accuse it of violently repressing opponents and activists, including feminists and the kingdom's Shia minority.

If the new deal goes ahead, it will see an 80 percent fund by MbS-led Public Investment Fund. British financer Amanda Staveley and British billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben will foot the remaining 20 percent.

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