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Newcastle council could be complicit in sportswashing, campaigners claim | Newcastle United

Human rights campaigners have suggested Newcastle city council could be complicit in sportswashing after its executives lobbied officials at the Saudi Arabian-controlled Newcastle United, attempting to secure investments and funding.

More than 200 pages of emails obtained under a freedom of information request highlight a close relationship between senior council officials and the St James’ Park hierarchy.

As councillors aim to forge strong business, educational and tourism links with Saudi Arabia, NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing (NUFCFAS) says local politicians on Tyneside must fulfil promises to “keep talking about human rights”.

Those pledges were made when Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund became the 80% owner of Newcastle United in 2021.

A spokesperson for the campaign group said: “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, 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.”

NUFCFAS staged a protest during a recent win against Sheffield United at St James’ Park, asking fans to hold up posters emblazoned with pictures of Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi citizen, member of the kingdom’s Shia minority and Leeds University PhD student. She is serving a 27-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia after endorsing tweets advocating women’s rights.

One email in the batch released thanks to the efforts of NUFCFAS and BBC Radio 4’s File on 4, was from Michelle Percy, the council’s director of investment and growth, to Amanda Staveley, one of Newcastle’s minority British co-owners.

It detailed “an ambition to attract further investment from the Gulf region, to increase exports from the north-east and bring in tourists”. Percy also suggested the north-east could develop a “joint energy institute lead by north-east and Saudi Universities”.

Nick Kemp, the council’s Labour leader, asked Newcastle United for more than £23m to fund free school meals, and a council officer wrote to Staveley asking her to lobby high-level UK government contacts to try to secure funding for the restoration of the Tyne Bridge.

Darren Eales, Newcastle United’s chief executive, said the club would not fund free school meals, pointing out it had donated cash to a local food bank.

Newcastle United declined to comment. A spokesperson for Newcastle city council said: “As a City of Sanctuary we share concerns about human rights issues across the world. However it’s important to recognise it is for government to take on the role of addressing those concerns at a national level.

“We also do not think it’s fair to blame those involved in the day-to-day management of Newcastle United, themselves a club of sanctuary, with alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. We have enjoyed a longstanding 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 city’s residents and the wider 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. It is an important responsibility, one we take seriously and we will continue to work collaboratively to attract international investment from across the world.”

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International’s UK head of campaigns, said: “When it comes to attracting Saudi money there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Newcastle city council should be careful. This type of relationship with Saudi Arabia aids its efforts to distract attention from its appalling human rights record.”

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