Written by John Hird - NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing

This Saturday, Saudi state owned Newcastle United will play the UAE government’s project Manchester City in the Emirates FA Cup in the Etihad stadium. Emirates and Etihad are both UAE airlines.

No other fixture in England sums up the state of modern football and raises the question of, where is modern football going?

Newcastle and City are both owned by Gulf dictatorships with horrendous human rights records. 

Newcastle fans are well aware of the human rights abuses of the 80% owners of the club and their attempt to use the club and by extension the region for sportswashing purposes to divert attention away from their crimes against their own population.

Due to diligent and determined work by groups like NUFC Fans Against 

Sportswashing (NUFCFAS) and Newcastle Amnesty, the names of Salma al-Shehab and Mohammad bin Nasser al-Ghamdi are partially known on Tyneside. 

Salma, a Saudi mother of two is serving 27 years in prison for posting tweets in support of Saudi prisoners of conscience. 

Mohammed, a retired teacher, was sentenced to death for his peaceful online activity on Twitter and YouTube. The charge sheet cited several tweets based on which Mohammad was convicted, including posts in which he criticised the Saudi King and Crown Prince and Saudi’s foreign policy, called for the release of detained religious clerics, and protested increased prices.

NUFCFAS has for more than two years urged NUFC fans and all connected to the club, including Alan Shearer to speak up for the victims of the Saudi state which owns the club.

Fans of other clubs often criticise Newcastle fans for not making it clearer that although we continue to support our team, we do not support the regime and their many and ongoing human rights abuses.  

Eddie Howe has been asked several times to comment on the Saudi owners by the press but has always refused, initially saying he needed to get more knowledge. Newcastle fans have complained that Pep Guardiola and Manchester City have not received the same treatment from the national press. Is there any truth in this?

When Guardiola was fined £20,000 by the FA in 2018 for wearing a yellow ribbon which signified support for jailed Catalan independence leaders he was asked at a press conference about the human rights abuses of his employers in UAE, who pay him an estimated £12 million a year.  

Pep dodged the question and in fact refused to show the same solidarity he extended to his fellow Catalans fighting for free speech and democratic rights to political prisoners in Abu Dhabi, home of City’s owners.

As David Conn pointed out at the time: “…..his (Guardiola’s) willingness to raise such issues and show solidarity (with Catalonia) should be applauded and followed by football people – and extended to human rights everywhere, including for those languishing in prison in the country of his employer.”

On the wider questions, it is true that the issues of nation state ownership and human rights abuses at the time of the 2008 takeover of Manchester City by the UAE dictatorship received less coverage than when the Saudi state took over Newcastle United over a decade later, but voices were raised at the time in Manchester and nationally that a dictatorial state were taking over a historic football club. Newcastle were more in the spotlight due to the fresh memory of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of Mohammed Bin Salman in 2018 and the experience of the UAE takeover of Manchester City. Incidentally, Newcastle United’s chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan is a right hand man of the Kingdom’s chief dictator. 

The Saudi regime certainly learned from their Gulf neighbours about how to smooth the way in the local press and councils for their sportswashing project. 

The consequences of the Premier League allowing two Gulf dictatorships to own football clubs goes far beyond football. As the report from Fair Square pointed out: “Political leaders in Manchester and Newcastle have not only declined multiple opportunities to use their positions of influence to express criticism of serious and systematic human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but have effectively assisted these two deeply abusive and profoundly anti-democratic states’ efforts to set up ‘soft power enclaves’ in cities with proud histories of protest and dissent.” 

Manchester City Chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak is a senior government official and the nominal owner, Sheikh Mansour Al-Nahyan is Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE and the brother of the President Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. 

UAE like Saudi Arabia has an appalling human rights record which should be talked about more. Scores of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences in UAE prisons following unfair trials on vague and broad charges that violate their rights to free expression and association.

A 1980 federal law prohibits any media content that is said to “criticise the president,” “damage the higher interests of the State,” “violate public morals” or publish “any material which includes disgrace against the president of an Arab or Islamic country or any other friendly country.” The list of prohibitions is long and laws threatening journalists with censorship are interpreted in a sufficiently vague manner as to establish a climate of self-censorship. No wonder Pep kept his mouth shut when asked about the human rights abuses of his bosses, although as the US writer Upton Sinclair once said: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

In February Amnesty reported that a mass trial of 84 Emiratis was begun of prominent human rights defenders, which flagrantly violates the defendants’ fair trial rights and disregards fundamental legal principle by re-trying some defendants for the same charges they were convicted of a decade ago.

The United Arab Emirates is also one of the biggest users of spyware with the aim of tracking and harassing those who criticise the government. The UAE’s 2012 cybersecurity law, which was amended in 2021, extends the government’s ability to censor journalistic content.

So, whatever the gulf in quality on the pitch between Newcastle and City, their owners are neck and neck when it comes to human rights abuses and oppression of their populations.

What is to be done? In the long run the whole question of allowing nation states has to be looked at by legislators in the game. 

Only two Premier League clubs are owned by states at the moment. Apart from having owners who commit gross human rights abuses, the corrupt practices of these dictatorships could be the beginning of the end for football, if allowed to continue. It is creating a financial imbalance. Nation states have bottomless pockets. Manchester City are still facing 101 charges of alleged rule breaking from the Premier League, ranging from assisting league investigations, profitability and sustainability, to manager remuneration and accuracy of financial information. 

Continuing and more extensive nation state ownership of clubs brings ever closer the prospect of multi-club ownership and ramifications for competitive integrity; the financially destabilising impact; and the use of clubs as branding vehicles for abusive states, also known as sportswashing.

There is also the question of the geopolitical rivalries between the states which own some of our football clubs. Do we really want our football clubs to compete in a league where tensions between foreign states have the potential to overshadow the competition? Our game is at risk of becoming inextricably entwined with the foreign policy of the UK, which has very substantial political, economic and security interests in the Gulf region.

Fans need to urge a further tightening up of the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test which would specifically draw a red line prohibiting and phasing out nation state ownership of football clubs.

We are looking over the cliff edge. Is the game to become part of a sportswashing arms race between dictatorships and oligarchs or are we going to reclaim the game?

At the match on Saturday fans of other clubs and in wider society would respect Newcastle and City fans more if they really recognised how problematic the owners of their respective clubs are. 

By all means, let's support our teams, but wouldn’t it be great if fans of both teams stood up for human rights in UAE and Saudi  Arabia in the Emirates FA Cup quarter final in the Etihad stadium? What a message that would be for the Gulf dictatorships using our clubs to deflect away attention from their crimes and human rights abuses!.


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