Saudi human rights activist to speak on ‘sportswashing’ at Newcastle fans’ forum

St James' Park, home of Newcastle united.
St James' Park is hosting two Saudi international matches in September. Credit: PA

A prominent Saudi human rights activist is speaking at a public meeting organised by Newcastle fans campaigning against "sportswashing".

Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and advocacy at ALQST for Human Rights, will be at the city’s Northern Stage theatre on Tuesday, 5 September at the invitation of NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing.

Her sister Loujain, a leading women’s rights activist, was released from prison in Saudi Arabia after 1,001 days in February 2021. She was jailed under counter-terrorism laws and continues to live under a series of restrictions, one of which prevents her from leaving the country.

Newcastle are 80% owned by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which had to give assurances to the Premier League of a separation between it and the state before a takeover was approved in October 2021.

NUFC Fans Against Sportwashing’s John Hird – who will chair the meeting – said: “It’s a privilege to have Lina visiting Newcastle to speak on behalf of the victims of the Saudi regime which owns our football club at the moment.

“I urge fellow fans who are uncomfortable about the damage being done to our club’s and region’s reputation, due to the association with one of the bloodiest dictatorships on the planet, to listen to what Lina has to say.

“We can show solidarity to the victims of the regime. Come to the meeting and find out how we can stop the Saudi sportswashing.”

PIF’s leading role in Amanda Staveley’s consortium prompted concerns in some quarters from the start amid accusations that it was using the club to enhance the Gulf state’s reputation via its involvement in sport. Amnesty International have been vociferous in their opposition.

The club, which has had success on the pitch under its wealthy new owners, has been challenged to shine a light on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing are urging Newcastle City Council and local MPs to exert pressure after it was revealed that the Saudi national team would play two matches at St James’ Park this month.

A city council spokesperson said: “The city council has no powers to intervene in sporting matches or events at St James’ Park as the club has a long lease to use it as a sports stadium. As a city, Newcastle has a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant culture and we expect all organisations based here to share those values.

“Newcastle United Football Club is making a huge contribution on and off the pitch to the city both socially and economically which is why we have recognised their achievements at civic receptions on two occasions in recent months for both the men and women’s teams.

“We are a proud City of Sanctuary and while we have huge concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, we do not think it is right or fair to blame anyone involved in the day-to-day management of the club with human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. However, we hope and expect that the Prime Minister and his government will take every opportunity to raise these important issues in Saudi Arabia at a government level.”

MP Chi Onwurah, who has sent her apologies to tonight's meeting, said: "I am a supporter of Newcastle United, like many of my constituents. That support does not in any way imply support for the Saudi regime.  

“We must not forget that Saudi Arabia, whose sovereign wealth fund is the effective owner of Newcastle United, continues to have one of the most atrocious human rights records in the world, particularly in regard to the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people. This does not reflect the values of our city. 

“Recent documented reports of the shooting of African refugees by Saudi border guards stand in sharp contrast to Newcastle’s status as a City of Sanctuary. I will continue to support Newcastle United, and to raise the human rights abuses of the Saudi regimes by all means open to me.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...