A spectacular aerial stunt designed to prick the conscience of the publicity-shy Saudi Arabian regime was carried out in front of 52,000 eyewitnesses on Sunday as part of a campaign to expose Saudi sportswashing and human rights abuses. The airborne drama happened over Newcastle United Football Club's stadium on what was billed as Super Sunday as the team played a crunch match against Arsenal FC.
Bemused football fans at St James' Park looked to the heavens before the start of the game where a small aircraft circled overhead trailing a message from the human rights advocacy group SANAD UK. The message was simple: "Free All Saudi Prisoners". It was clearly visible from the 52,000 full-to-capacity stadium in the heart of Newcastle. Tens of thousands of city centre shoppers also saw the message as they watched the spectacle unfold.
The stunt went viral on social media as fans speculated who was behind the message. The clue, of course, was in the banner itself, which included the Twitter handle @Sanad_En, the UK-based group run by Saudi dissident Dr Saeed Al Ghamdi, chair of the organisation's board of trustees.
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Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund bought a controlling share in Newcastle United FC in a highly controversial 2021 takeover. Sunday's stunt was aimed specifically at one person in St James' Park: Newcastle chairman Yasir Al Rumayyan. Al-Rumayyan is the governor of the Saudi PIF. He was described as a "sitting minister of the Saudi government" in a recent document submitted to a US court, which raises fresh questions about the degree of separation between the club's ownership and the Saudi regime under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The regime has been criticised heavily by human-rights groups for its use of the death penalty, and Al-Rumayyan, 53, is regarded as Bin Salman's right hand man. He has remained low profile since PIF's takeover 16 months ago, but was apparently at Sunday's match, which Arsenal won 2-0.
Newcastle United will be hoping that the aerial stunt will not deter any new sponsorship deals which are expected to be announced soon. The club hopes to increase its spending power in time for summer transfer opportunities. Arsenal kept their title hopes alive with the victory, while Newcastle were trying to take another step towards Champions League qualification. In sporting terms, the stakes could not have been any higher, which is why SANAD UK chose the high-profile fixture to stage its protest.
The strategy worked. Mainstream media and sporting blogs took note of the banner. Encouraged by the subsequent headlines, SANAD says that there will be more eye-catching stunts to follow.
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"There are literally thousands of political prisoners inside Saudi Arabia, but no one knows what is happening to them or the psychological and physical harm being done to them," explained former Saudi prisoner and political dissident Fahad Ghuwaydi. "Their plight is serious and the abuse can often lead to death. As a former detainee I want to expose these violations as best I can through SANAD. We need to expose the dark side of Saudi Arabia's activities through its sportswashing."
The message flying above St James' Park, he pointed out, came just one day before the retrial of Dr Muhammad Fahd Al-Qahtani, who has spent more than ten years in prison for criticising the Saudi regime and demanding political reforms.
While there has been no direct or official response from Saudi Arabia to the aerial stunt, I'm reliably informed that the authorities in Riyadh are aware of the potential for bad publicity and are not happy. I am pleased that I do not live in the Kingdom.
"Newcastle fans living in Saudi Arabia are aware of the story but are too afraid to tweet about it or discuss it on any other social media platforms," said a source in the Kingdom who did not want to be named. "They fear that it will be viewed as criticism of the regime."
Sports analyst Stanis Elsborg wrote recently that one of the active engines behind the Saudi regime's Vision 2030 programme is the PIF, of which Bin Salman is the chairman. "A key PIF objective is to diversify and enrich the Kingdom's tourism and entertainment experience to build a more vibrant society and solidify the sport sector's economic and social role on all levels," said Elsborg. As such, the PIF plays a significant role in Saudi's sport strategy, not least through various sponsorships in golf, motorsport and the ownership of Newcastle United FC.
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"But as already highlighted, sport is far from the only asset that the Kingdom uses to try to exercise its influence. During the 2020 pandemic, the PIF invested millions of US dollars in Boeing, Disney, Facebook… This clearly demonstrates the multifaceted strategy of Vision 2030. In the sporting world, PIF investments grow at a fast pace as it acquires the hosting rights for international sporting events, buys sports clubs, and engages in a wide range of sponsorships."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.