BBC: Newcastle City Council criticised for NUFC and Saudi Arabia ties in human rights expose

Adrian Goldberg, Fergus Hewison

The close relationship between a Saudi owned Newcastle United and the city council have been criticised by human rights campaigners.

BBC File on 4 has discovered a senior Newcastle City Council officer wrote to Newcastle United (NUFC) co-owner Amanda Staveley asking her to lobby government ministers over repairs to the Tyne Bridge when funding from the Department for Transport stalled.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was raised when the club was taken over in 2021, but there are concerns it is being ignored by a council desperate for investment.

NUFC declined to comment. The Saudi Embassy in the UK and Ms Staveley have not responded. The council said close co-operation with the football club was beneficial for the city.

A spokesman for Newcastle City council claimed the investment it brought to the city “ultimately puts money in the pockets of all our residents”.

Last year, Ms Staveley, a minority shareholder who has become the face of the club’s Saudi ownership, asked senior council officer Michelle Percy to prepare a briefing ahead of a meeting she was having with Lord Dominic Johnson, a UK investment minister.

The briefing concentrated on attracting Saudi investment to the north-east of England.

Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the campaign group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing, and seen by File on 4, reveal Ms Percy then wrote to Ms Staveley in January.

She complained a grant for the restoration of the Tyne Bridge had not been signed off by the government and asked for help in “reaching out to the PM and ministers at a high level”.

Ms Staveley then wrote to two figures in government, whose names have been redacted, asking for help to “expedite the process of releasing this vital funding”.

Within three weeks, the government confirmed it was awarding the council £35m to help restore the bridge.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said, by the time Ms Staveley’s email was received, the business case for the Tyne Bridge was already in the final stages of approval and the email played no part in the release of the funding.

File on 4 has discovered the council backtracked on plans to create a forum to discuss human rights with supporters and campaigners, which it proposed when the football club was bought by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) in October 2021.

At the time, the Premier League received “legally binding assurances” from the PIF, which provided 80% of funds for the deal, that the Saudi state would not control Newcastle United.

However, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, is the chairman of the PIF and its governor is Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the director of Newcastle United.

Saudi Arabia has been widely criticised for human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

It was accused last week of ordering the killing of villagers who stood in the way of a futuristic city under construction in the desert called NEOM.

The council said it “shares” concerns about human rights across the world but argued it was up to the UK government to address these issues.

Results from another FOI submitted by the campaign group suggest the council asked the club for £23m to help fund a free meal for every child in the city every day for a year.

The local authority has had to cut £369m from its budget since 2010.

Director of human rights research group Fair Square, Nick McGeehan, said: “I think it’s a huge problem when a cash-strapped local council has very strong links to a capital rich, very wealthy foreign state, particularly when that foreign state is deeply autocratic and anti-democratic.

“That poses a risk to the council because it means, in certain situations, the council is not going to stand up for local values or principles, but will keep quiet in order to satisfy the commercial interests of its foreign partner.”

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