NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing, a grassroots fan campaign opposed to the Saudi dictatorship’s ownership of Newcastle United invited leading Saudi human rights advocate Lina al-Hathloul to Tyneside.

Lina’s sister, Loujain, who was instrumental in the campaign to lift a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, was then forcibly disappeared and tortured. She was released from prison in Saudi Arabia in February 2021, having been jailed for 1,001 days under counter-terrorism laws, but continues to live under restrictions that prevent her from leaving the country.

You can listen to the event here:

In Newcastle, Lina toured the newspaper and radio stations and the journalists were taken aback when she recounted the brutality of the regime which owns the city’s football club.  NUFCFAS has highlighted at protests outside of St. James’ Park, the case of nine young men. The teenagers are on death row for peacefully protesting for their rights. Tortured into forced fake confessions and possibly decapitated once they reach 18, often their parents are not even notified until after death.

All 78 Newcastle City Councillors and Tyneside MPs were written to, requesting them to meet Lina and NUFCFAS to discuss the question of the Saudi dictatorship using the club and by extension the city to divert attention away from their horrendous human rights record. 

Last year Newcastle City Council cut ties with a Chinese city over claims the country's regime has abused Uyghur people including the use of torture. We suggested that Newcastle City Council should also be talking about torture in Saudi Arabia.

Only three councillors agreed to meet Lina and she commented at the public meeting on the worrying fact the Saudi regime was succeeding in buying silence: "I've seen it just today, I mean I found it quite shocking... I tried to meet with MPs and Councillors here and I would say 90% of them say it explicitly that it's a political risk for them to be seen with me."

However, due to the NUFCFAS campaign and Lina’s visit, Newcastle City council, along with one MP did make a statement about the two Saudi sportswashing internationals held at St. James’ Park, in which they said they had concerns about the human rights record of the regime. It must be said however, that was only after they were asked by us.

At the meeting NUFCFAS also called on all those connected with the club to show consistency. Newcastle United legend Alan Shearer showed solidarity with his Match of the Day colleague, Gary Lineker, whose free speech was threatened by the BBC over his tweets. We publicly challenged Alan to show the same solidarity with Salma al-Shehab and Nourah al-Qahtani, who are two Saudi women and mothers who have been jailed for 27 and 45 years for tweeting in favour of women’s rights. 

"We're asking people like Alan Shearer, fans groups, and local politicians to stick to what they said pre-takeover. Alan said that there were issues, concerns about human rights, well let's follow that through, let's talk about it."

Labour councillor Jane Byrne, a member of the city council’s cabinet, did meet with us ahead of the meeting and said she was “very concerned” with the situation. She added: “Newcastle is a city of sanctuary and I have spoken with Lina about ways in which we can work with her to highlight these issues. We are very happy to speak out in support of human rights.”

This is a breakthrough and shows the importance of having a grassroots campaign to raise these issues and put pressure on political representatives. In the run up to the meeting we contacted unions and especially teaching unions to show solidarity with Muhammad al-Ghamdi, a retired Saudi teacher who was condemned to death for 10 Tweets in favour of human rights. Some trade unionists turned up to the meeting and university teachers in attendance suggested taking some initiatives.

NUFCFAS held a protest outside St. James’ Park on the night Saudi Arabia played Costa Rica. We had wanted to congregate in front of the Alan Shearer statue but the club moved us on. The protest was reported worldwide and with less than 5,000 attending, the match was considered a flop. The words ‘flop’ and ‘protest’ will not have gone down well with the Saudi regime and their bots and trolls went into overdrive against us.

At the protest some young fans, dressed in the green Saudi / Newcastle strip and draped in Saudi flags tried to disrupt the event by berating and shouting down a protester. The resulting video got 13 million views on Twitter but not the reaction the Podcaster intended. Almost universally, those who were trying to shout down the protest were criticised. The young guys who tried to disrupt our protest are a very small minority but a worrying development which must be answered.

The takeover of football clubs by repressive regimes is not just of concern to football fans but has wider implications for society. Dictatorships such as the owners of Manchester City and Newcastle United seek to ‘normalise’ their crimes and human rights abuses. Recently the Saudi regime has been accused of killing hundreds of Ethiopian migrants on the Yemen border, Human Rights Watch called the killings, ‘widespread and systematic.’

Political representatives, especially the Labour Party and trade unions have a responsibility to push back and speak out about our region being used as a giant billboard to deflect attention away from the crimes of one of the bloodiest dictatorships on the planet.

As Lina pointed out at the meeting, if the regime has managed to almost silence the local press and politicians by spending millions on the club, what will happen if and when MBS starts buying up newspapers? There are implications for local democracy and planning too. As Nick McGeehan, co-director of FairSquare, who also spoke at the meeting said:

“It’s normal for politicians and officials to welcome investment in their cities and to want to respond to their communities’ understandable desire for footballing success. But to date, civic leaders in both Manchester and Newcastle have been wilfully blind to the risks of allowing these states to establish centres of political power and influence in their cities, to the extent that they have effectively aided their efforts.” - From Easy Cities to Buy

In the case of Saudi Arabia there is also an internal element to the sportswashing. The country has a young football mad population and the regime hopes to ‘prove’ its ‘legitimacy’ through its ownership of a football club. On September the 8th it was reported that under chief dictator MBS’s rule the 100th person had been executed in 2023. The regime is on a relentless killing spree. The reason for the bloody brutality, especially against young people and women is that the regime fears an uprising. They are literally killing the opposition and it is crucial that they are not allowed to silence those who oppose them in Newcastle.

NUFCFAS has existed since the Saudi takeover, We’ve held three public meetings, three protests, built a website which has many well researched articles and published three editions of our Fanzine, 'Hailstones in the Desert’. We have also collaborated with three Saudi human rights groups and most importantly kept the question of human rights and the Saudi ownership on the agenda.



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