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Supporting Newcastle United is not all black and white when it comes to human rights

February 1, 2023 at 11:19 am

A fan of Newcastle United can be seen wearing the traditional Saudi head dress and draped in a Saudi Arabia flag head of the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur in London, UK. [Robbie Jay Barratt /AMA/Getty Images]

The odious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is in a league of his own when it comes to using the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, according to a new report out this week. The smirking de facto ruler of the kingdom has watched executions almost double in number every year since he came to power suddenly in 2017. This is an inconvenient truth to most of the team’s fans who’ve watched Newcastle United Football Club rise up the English Premier League and now reach the final of the Carabao Cup.

Just as Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is overlooked by presidents and prime ministers of Western countries addicted to cheap oil, the loyal “Toon Army” of Newcastle fans seem to be prepared to look the other way when uncomfortable questions are asked about the Saudi money behind the club’s meteoric improvement.

The brutal truth is, though, that money talks and Saudi money pumped into the struggling North East club has delivered new riches beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Years of under-investment and under-achievement have come to a startling end. Now a prestigious cup final at Wembley beckons the Magpies. The club sits third in the Premier League having lost just once in 20 games, and that only because of a goal conceded deep into time added on at Muhammad Salah’s Liverpool FC.

The name Eddie Howe might not yet resonate across the Arab world like Salah’s does, but in Riyadh he has iconic status as Newcastle manager who has been able to attract top-flight players to the club. Moreover, I’m reliably informed that a growing number of Saudi-based football fans look upon Newcastle as the kingdom’s adopted team.

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“Whilst Newcastle United is on an exciting and ambitious journey to grow our global reach and fanbase, we are also very focussed on growing our fan base and following in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East,” explained Newcastle United’s Chief Commercial Officer, Peter Silverstone, recently. “Our ambition is to become the most supported English Premier League football team in Saudi Arabia; a country whose population includes a large, young, passionate and highly engaged football community.”

Howe has based the club’s revival on a strong defence, with new signings playing a key role. World-class efforts have come from the £40 million Brazilian Bruno Guimaraes, while £60m Swedish striker Alexander Isak has shown what he can do, even though he has been injured. Newcastle’s latest signing is Anthony Gordon from Everton, who could eventually cost as much as £45m. The Saudi pot of gold is already paying off, it seems.

As a lifelong Newcastle fan, I am conflicted, but I’m not alone. I am a member of Newcastle United Fans Against Sportswashing, and have read a joint report by the non-profit European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR) and the anti-death penalty charity Reprieve. Bloodshed and Lies: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Kingdom of Executions makes for grim reading.

Reprieve states that the average number of executions has risen by 82 per cent under Bin Salman, who delights in projecting an image to the outside world as a reformer and moderniser. The number of executions annually has risen from an average of 70.8 between 2010 and 2014, to 129.5 per year since 2015, when the current king ascended the throne with his soon-to-be crown prince son in tow.

Despite official claims that the death penalty does not apply to minors, at least 15 children have been executed in Saudi Arabia since 2010, according to data published by human rights groups. More than 1,000 executions altogether have been carried out since 2015.

The report also looked into the increasing use of mass executions as a potential deterrent. A record number of 81 people were executed on a single day in March 2022, for example. The UN’s then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the mass execution, saying that the regime had implemented “an extremely broad definition” of terrorism, including “non-violent acts”.

Reprieve Director Maya Foya was more direct: “The explosion in the number of executions in Saudi Arabia under Mohammed Bin Salman is a crisis the international community cannot continue to ignore.”

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She added that, “Every data point in this report is a human life taken… And all while [Bin Salman] lies to the world that he has reformed the system to reduce the number of people executed. When the US, UK and EU go along with these lies, it makes the next mass execution more likely.”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rarely responds to negative media coverage or questions about its human rights record. However, officials at the Saudi Embassy in London were eager to point out to the BBC recently that other countries also use the death penalty at their own discretion. “As we respect their right to determine their own laws and customs, we hope that others will respect our sovereign right to follow our own judicial and legislative choices,” they said.

The judicial system that convicts defendants for capital crimes is shrouded in secrecy, according to the report. The Saudi authorities frequently notify prisoners’ families at the very last minute that execution is imminent, and bodies are often not released for burial.

“This report provides a glimpse at what Saudi justice looks like now that [Bin Salman] has been emboldened by Western governments that have failed to hold him accountable for the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as numerous other crimes and abuses including the Yemen war,” said Abdullah Al-Oudah, whose father, an eminent Saudi scholar, is sitting on death row. “My father is possibly facing the death penalty at any moment just because he called for peace and tweeted for reforms.”

When Eddie Howe was appointed manager after the sacking of Steve Bruce in November 2021, the new Saudi Arabian majority owners began reshaping the club without delay. The Saudi Public Investment Fund holds an 80 per cent stake in the consortium which bought out the unpopular Mike Ashley a month before Bruce was ousted.

Will I try to get a ticket for the final at Wembley later this month? I’m not sure. It will be a historic occasion; it’s just a shame that the club had to sell its soul to get there.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.