Newcastle and the football business: why have politicians bottled out on human rights?

By Jon Barnes

The controversial Saudi-led buy-out of Newcastle Utd may have been given the green light, but whether the club’s new owners and the Premier League will be given a red card in the days and months ahead for their morally bankrupt approval and pursuit of the deal remains to be seen. Also in question, but much less commented on so far, is whether the UK’s political class will be tackled for helping to facilitate its go-ahead.

The signs are that the human rights issues raised by the takeover will last for a fair while. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s salvo on the subject at his press briefing last Friday, albeit couched in concerns about another influx of Gulf state big money distorting fair competition in the game, followed a long period of media scrutiny of the deal’s ethics. Such coverage has been inspired in no small part by journalists’ revulsion at the Saudi state’s alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018.

Sports-washing: putting the Premier League on the spot

Buoyed by this attention, Amnesty International is one of several human rights groups continuing to mount pressure on decision-makers, stressing how the Saudi regime will use the capture of Newcastle, as a prime UK sporting asset, to launder its repressive image internationally through so-called ‘sports-washing’. Last week, AI’s UK chapter requested an urgent meeting with Premier League chief executive Richard Masters to urge the PL to make human rights compliance a crucial criterion in decision-making on club takeovers.

Whether the PL will accept this latest appeal is uncertain. A previous AI letter in July 2020 on mooted Saudi involvement in the Newcastle takeover, which called for the PL’s owners’ and directors’ test to be adjusted in order to tackle human rights, did not merit a response. And while the PL did reply to a similar approach at the time by Human Rights Watch and the rights group FairSquare – they urged the PL to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy along the lines of that put in place by FIFA in 2017 and to exercise due diligence as required by the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – it did not address human rights. The PL insisted instead on its right to commercial privacy in reaching a decision.

Now the dirty deed has finally been done, opening up the supposed juicy prospect of Newcastle becoming the richest club in the world, the new owners and their supporters no doubt hope public attention will turn to what happens on the pitch, boardroom and transfer market. Already, football media pundits and former players, whatever their professed qualms about human rights, seem more exercised, like many Newcastle fans, by anticipation of NUFC’s upward sporting fortunes.

Newcastle football hero Alan Shearer has suggested the sale of the club to this repressive state could paradoxically help highlight human rights issues, and images of Khashoggi were on show at the St James Park ground before Sunday’s match against Spurs. But how much critical freedom of expression the new owners will tolerate is unclear. Perhaps they will ask Saudi Arabia to drop in this case its ungamely habit of infecting the phones of its critics with Pegasus spyware.

Sport and politics: convenient degrees of separation

To sell the deal, the age-old argument, once again, is that sport and politics are strictly separate realms, and those now in charge of NUFC will be confident its fictitious currency can be boosted. Sport is sport and dealing with the politics of human rights should be left to politicians.

The cup-winning epitome of such convenient compartmentalisation, of course, has been the PL’s acceptance of ‘legally binding assurances’ from the takeover consortium that its 80 per cent shareholder, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund, is not controlled by the Saudi state, even though the PIF is chaired by its crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman and has numerous Saudi ministers as directors. To suggest a structural connection, it seems, is to promote ‘fake news’. Trump is gone; long live Trump in prime minister Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ with its supposed international commitment to defending democratic freedoms from the rising threat of authoritarian regimes.

Enter also the brave new world of post-2019 Labour, with its Newcastle council leader disturbingly welcoming the PIF-Saudi distinction, despite reports of court allegations that a PIF-bought company’s aircraft was used to carry the men responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. The appeals of his widow, Hatice Cengiz, for the deal not to have UK blessing, have gone unheard.

Whatever the moral contortions of football big business, the bigger question raised by the Newcastle case is the apparent complicity of UK politicians and political leaders in enabling the takeover. Regardless of the party colour of their respective team strip, politicians have indulged, to varying degrees, in their own sporting sophistry to wash their hands of their human rights duties.

Behind-the-scenes Tory support

UK sports minister Nigel Huddleston, when asked about the concerns swirling around the takeover, distanced the government from the affair, saying it should not interfere because football had to be trusted to deal with its own business.

This separation is risible. With its manifest geopolitical ramifications, the deal is anything but a purely football matter. Mohammed Bin Salman reportedly contacted Boris Johnson to warn of consequences if the takeover did not go ahead. His blackmailing presumably had in mind the UK’s post-Brexit hopes of bolstering trade with Saudi Arabia, already rocketing with the UK’s multi-billion arms sales to the regime, which have faced sharp criticism for exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and political conflict in Yemen. Tellingly, the government has refused to disclose details of its discussions with the PL because it could “harm” relations with Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, amid the persistent charges of cronyism against Boris Johnson’s Tory administration, reports indicate the government was keen behind the scenes to give its blessing to the deal. They note the Reuben Brothers, who hold a 10 per cent stake in the NUFC consortium, have been important donors to the Conservative Party. Boris Johnson’s new international trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, was among the political figures thanked by Jamie Reuben of RB Sports & Media for their support in securing the Newcastle deal.

Left to Labour at a local level: bridging a divide, facing two ways

Meanwhile, the stance of the opposition Labour Party has been one of ambiguity and obfuscation, with the Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah left in the hot seat over the last year and a half to handle the affair by herself on behalf of her fellow Newcastle MPs and, implicitly, the Labour Party nationally. Some 93 per cent of NUFC fans are said to back the deal, so it has understandably been a tricky role to play, especially in a city where football pride is a vital part of its identity. Back in May 2020, Chi Onwurah organised an online Town Hall consultation to bridge the divide between strong local support for the Saudi takeover from loathed owner Mike Ashley on the one hand and human rights critics on the other.

Chi Onwurah professed strong concerns at the time with Saudi Arabia’s brutal record and has continued to do so since the takeover. Yet her claims of commitment on human rights have rung hollow for those working in the field, not least in the light of the warm thanks expressed to her by consortium figures, who, she says, have expressed faith in their investment being “a sign of change and a desire to open up” on the part of Saudi Arabia.

Critics argue the MP, rather than sustaining her local engagement on the human rights problems of the deal and opposing it from the start, soon focused her attention on criticising the PL for the slowness and closed nature of its decision-making. This had led the Saudi-led consortium initially to pull out of a deal in July 2020. They note in turn the statements from leaders and officials of the Labour-led city council vocally pressing for a quicker decision on the takeover.

Far from being a local matter, the Saudi-led takeover is of course a national and international policy question of major significance for the British state. Yet Labour’s top players have so far been unable to say whether the party backs or opposes it.

Labour leadership: missing in action, finally taking a chance?

The Party’s get-out-of-jail-free position has also been to treat the deal as a narrow sports governance issue rather than one begging a response for its geo-political and human rights implications. Leader Keir Starmer has said it is not for him as a politician to decide who should own football clubs and has not even expressed a view either way. Along with his shadow sports minister, Allison McGovern, he has outsourced the issue, supporting the creation of an independent regulator to oversee takeovers as part of the government’s football governance review led by former sports minister Tracey Crouch MP following the fan-scuppered plans for a breakaway European Super League involving elite PL clubs. Her interim report has not dealt with human rights.

In view of Keir Starmer’s reluctance to take a wider view, I approached Labour’s shadow frontbenchers Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry for comment from the standpoint of their respective foreign affairs and international trade portfolios. I did not receive a reply before finishing this piece. At the time of the recent Party conference, both had spoken, in echoes of Robin Cook, of Labour adopting an ethical foreign policy, with Thornberry releasing a policy report pledging to put human rights at the centre of trade policy under a future Labour government. As the UK government prepares for negotiations on a trade deal with Gulf States, she has spoken of the moral dilemmas of post-Brexit trade opportunities in the region.

As the Crouch review is finalised for soon release, it remains to be seen whether the Labour leadership will take an injury-time stand on human rights, in line with Amnesty’s call for human rights compliance in football takeovers and the growing in-principle policy moves by international sporting bodies to exercise human rights due diligence in their operations.

So far, the Party’s stance in Newcastle suggests that, in the context of wider UK politics, Labour has opted for unconvincing triangulation. Its overriding concern appears to have been to avoid being outcompeted by the Tories in the culture-war pitch to so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters, and to keep its foreign policy options open. Some Labour MPs, like many of their Conservative counterparts, have been no strangers to Saudi charm offensives. At the same time, the Party has upheld rhetorically its tradition and brand image as a progressive internationalist force with its liberal-minded membership.

It is hard not to conclude that the Labour Party, in this football case as elsewhere, though not necessarily formally in league with the government, is positioning itself within the constraints of the rightward authoritarian political terrain and discourse shaped by the latter. The new owners’ words of gratitude to both Conservative and Labour politicians show how confident they are about cajoling their engagement in the very same net.

A parable of our times: levelling up, sinking down

In the end, the Newcastle story, alongside ethical questions about the UK’s commitment to human rights, is a parable of our sorry times as one leading observer has pointed out. While Amanda Staveley of PCP Capital Partners, the other partner in the consortium, invoked the government’s ‘levelling up’ rhetoric to sell the deal to the public – it went ahead during the Tory Party conference – the takeover is emblematic of the murky depths to which the UK’s politics and economy have sunk. As much as following the fans, it has been a question of leaders in public life following the money.

Far from ‘taking back control’ by tapping into untaxed excessive UK and offshore wealth, the people and council of this proud and vibrant city, hit by over a decade of government-imposed austerity, are now turning to a repressive overseas state, keen to penetrate both UK sport and the UK body politic, as the prime source of investment and future dynamism.

Hailing the “transformative potential” of the Saudi takeover for the city, council leaders may be dreaming of turning Newcastle into the Neom of the Northeast, but how far the anticipated investment in urban regeneration will tackle poverty and inequality in the city remains to be seen.

We have been here before, of course, with Newcastle set to follow the Gulf State examples of Manchester City and, in France, Paris Saint-Germain. Observers question not just the human rights issues at stake in the Manchester City-United Arab Emirates partnership but also how widely the economic benefits and wealth of property development have been shared with people in the city. Meanwhile, the UK is becoming another playground for Gulf State rivalry in projecting soft power.

Jon Barnes is a freelance writer and editor specialising in international development and business and human rights. He is author of A Record of Change in a Changing World, a history of the pioneering UK international development NGO CIIR-Progressio, which closed in 2017 after 76 years of influential work for international peace and rights-based sustainable development. Follow him on Twitter @JonBarnes3

Image: St James’ Football Stadium – Newcastle. Author: Steve F-E-Cameron (Merlin-UK), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.