Newcastle City Council Urged to Address Human Rights Concerns
AFP / Darren Staples

A representative of the campaign group NUFCFAS has called on Newcastle City Council to denounce human rights violations perpetrated by the Saudi government openly.

The group has also urged the council to engage in direct discussions with Newcastle United's chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan, who serves as the governor of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and is regarded as a prominent Saudi government official.

"NUFCFAS urges Newcastle City Council to publicly condemn human rights abuses by the Saudi state and take up specific cases with the football club's chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan," stated the spokesperson. "The council should host, at the earliest opportunity, a meeting with a delegation of Saudi human rights advocates in Newcastle."

This call to action was highlighted by a protest organized by NUFCFAS during a recent match against Sheffield United at St James' Park.

Fans were encouraged to display posters featuring Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi national and a member of the kingdom's Shia minority, currently serving a 27-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia for supporting women's rights via social media.

Emails obtained by NUFCFAS, in collaboration with BBC Radio 4's File on 4, revealed exchanges between Michelle Percy, Newcastle City Council's director of investment and growth, and Amanda Staveley, a minority co-owner of Newcastle United.

Percy outlined the council's ambition to attract further investment from the Gulf region, boost exports from the northeast, and increase tourism. She also proposed the development of a "joint energy institute led by north-east and Saudi universities."

Amid these efforts, Nick Kemp, the council's Labour leader, requested over £23 million from Newcastle United to fund free school meals. Additionally, a council officer reached out to Staveley to lobby her high-level UK government contacts for funding to restore the Tyne Bridge.

However, Newcastle United's chief executive, Darren Eales, declined to fund the school meals initiative, highlighting the club's donations to local food banks instead.

In response to the ongoing controversy, Newcastle United declined to comment. At the same time, a spokesperson for Newcastle City Council said: "As a City of Sanctuary, we share concerns about human rights issues globally. However, it is the government's role to address these concerns on a national level. We do not believe it is fair to hold those managing Newcastle United accountable for alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia."

The council emphasized its longstanding relationship with Newcastle United, acknowledging the club's significant contributions to the city. "The club is ingrained into the fabric of our city and makes a huge contribution both on and off the pitch. A successful Newcastle United benefits our city's residents and the wider region. Like other local authorities, we aim to drive investment and growth for the benefit of all our residents. International investment creates jobs and opportunities and boosts the city economy, which is an important responsibility we take seriously."

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International's UK head of campaigns, warned against the potential repercussions of engaging with Saudi investments. "When it comes to attracting Saudi money, there's no such thing as a free lunch. Newcastle City Council should be cautious. This type of relationship with Saudi Arabia aids its efforts to distract from its appalling human rights record."

The debate over Saudi investment and human rights continues to stir significant controversy in Newcastle, reflecting broader global concerns about the ethical implications of financial ties with nations accused of human rights violations.