May 25, 2024

Does the proposed measure establishing a new independent football regulator go far enough?
The proposed bill to establish an independent football regulator is welcomed by individuals and organisations ranging from the Football Supporters Association (FSA) to former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch, but does it go far enough?

It is critical that under the new legislation, breakaway, closed-shop tournaments like the European Super League are prohibited.

The formation of the new authority is anticipated to bring Newcastle United’s ownership under renewed investigation. Under the new legislation, clubs must get a license to operate, which will only be given if they can establish the identity of their ultimate owner. It is vital to note that it will apply to both present and future owners.

Newcastle takeover

When the Premier League approved the takeover of Newcastle in 2021, it was only after receiving “legally binding assurances” that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which owns 80% of the club, is separate from the Saudi state.

Those assurances have to be re-examined once the new independent regulator is in place, especially because no one associated with the club or the PIF tries to pretend that the Saudi state still controls the team.

The government claims that the sustainability of the football pyramid would be addressed, but it makes no mention of nation-state ownership of teams like as Newcastle United and Manchester City, which seriously threaten football’s existence.

Last year, NUFCFAS questioned Tracey Crouch directly on the Nicky Campbell Radio 5 show if she would support a ban on nation states, particularly those that violate human rights, holding communal assets such as football clubs. As a Conservative Party representative, she rejected, but what about the FSA?

A clear position is needed

Unfortunately, the most influential fan association does not take a firm stance against nation-state ownership of teams.

Here’s why they should. If permitted to continue, nation-state ownership pushes the threat of multi-club ownership closer to reality, with major implications for the game’s competitiveness.

It also has a financial impact, and the exploitation of clubs as branding vehicles for oppressive states, often known as sportswashing, is detrimental to the game and the regions in which the clubs are located.

There’s also the issue of geopolitical rivalries between the states that control two of our historic football clubs.

Fans support clubs competing in a league where tensions between foreign countries have the potential to dominate the game. Our game is at risk of becoming intricately linked with the UK’s foreign policy, which has significant political, economic, and security interests in the Gulf region.

The Football Bill is a little step forward, but it needs to be taken much further.

Sustainability

Real sustainability requires a complete ban on nation states and human rights violating regimes from owning football teams. This is something Labour representatives in the North East should embrace and encourage a future Labour government to undertake. Lord Scriven, a Liberal Democrat peer, recently urged the government to examine and perhaps ban foreign ownership of English football clubs and athletic groups.

The proposed bill and legislation should serve as a period of introspection for everyone involved with the club, including Tyneside political figures and fan organizations.

When Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) completed the takeover of Newcastle United in October 2021, Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah said, “If you think the Newcastle United takeover will stop me criticising the Saudi Regime, you don’t know me or Newcastle.”

Onwurah further stated, “Many of us are horrified by Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which stands in direct opposition to the values of our city.” She went on to say, “I understand the new owners believe this investment is a sign of change and a desire to open up on the part of Saudi Arabia and I hope that is true.”

Human rights worse than ever

At the time of the takeover, local politicians, Sky Sports broadcasters, and fan organizations appeared to assume that Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Newcastle United would eventually revolutionize their entire community.

“Engagement” and “critical friends holding the owners to account” were to be essential phases in this process. It should not be forgotten that prior to the takeover, all those in a position to provide a realistic analysis of the repercussions for the region of permitting such a dictatorship to possess our club without raising significant and honest human rights issues failed to do so.

‘Engagement’ has failed completely, and human rights violations are worse than ever. NUFCFAS will launch a campaign with fans from all clubs to persuade the new football regulator to require the Premier League to evaluate the Saudi and UAE state ownership of Newcastle United and Manchester City.

A new Amnesty investigation, Kingdom of Repression, dismantles the Saudi regime’s image-laundering efforts in recent years, including its ownership of Newcastle United. Despite Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) presenting himself as a reformer, the country’s human rights situation has deteriorated significantly since his accession.

Draft penal code

A recently disclosed draft penal code would criminalise forms of expression protected by international law, such as defamation, insulting, and criticizing the judiciary.

In March 2024, NUFCFAS signed a joint letter with Amnesty International, Saudi human rights organizations, ALQST, ESOHR, and NGOs condemning the arrest and prosecution of Al Safa Football Club (Al Safa FC) supporters under Saudi Arabia’s notorious Anti-Cybercrime Law for “sectarian” chants at a recent match. This act of repression, which restricts the freedom to free speech in football stadiums at a time when the authorities are heavily investing in sports and tourism, highlights the alarming disparity between Saudi authorities’ actions and their public narrative of liberalization.

Saudi authorities have imprisoned and even executed people for tweeting in support of free speech.

Human rights defenders are frequently imprisoned and, in some cases, disappeared.

What the draft code won’t stop

The proposed code does not prohibit the use of the death penalty or physical penalties such as flogging and amputation.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s leading executioners. 196 executions in 2022, with preliminary indications of 172 in 2023 with beheadings continuing in 2024. NUFCFAS has highlighted the cases of kids on death row during protests.

The concept of sportswashing implies that the dictatorship makes repeated false promises about’reform’. MBS committed to limit the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders and crimes for which a death sentence is not required under Sharia law.

However, the draft law does not protect women and girls from all forms of gender abuse, including confusing sexual assault with consensual sex. It also does not consider marital rape a crime and protects those who commit honour crimes.

Women will continue to be subject to a male guardianship system, which permits male relatives to exert control over critical elements of their lives. NUFCFAS encourages women’s groups and movements in Tyneside to speak up on behalf of Saudi women.

Despite Saudi officials’ repeated assertions that “everyone is welcome,” the draft code continues to criminalize “illegitimate” consensual sexual relationships, making the LGBTIQ+ population vulnerable to prosecution. Individuals who do not comply to prevalent sexual and gender norms face imprisonment and punishment. Regulations concerning obscenity and dress also include bans.

It would be a wonderful gesture if the NUFC LGBT group, United with Pride, issued a statement condemning these actions and expressing solidarity with the beleaguered Saudi LGBT community. Such a comment would be warmly welcomed by Saudi human rights campaigners, demonstrating that NUFC fans have not been completely sportswashed, as many believe.

Need to condemn

Newcastle City Council stated on November 3, 2021, that it will cut ties with its twin city in China due to the country’s “horrific” human rights abuses. Council leaders terminated ties with the city of Taiyuan, which had been linked with Newcastle since the 1980s.

Is it now time for Newcastle City Council and Tyneside MPs to officially criticize the Saudi regime, which also owns Newcastle United, for using the death sentence, torturing women and the LGBT community, and suppressing basic human rights?

Fan organizations can also follow through on pre-takeover promises to ‘keep the owners’ accountable for human rights.

At the time of the takeover, two members of the Wor Flags group were reported in the German newspaper DW: “If we felt that the Saudis were abusing women’s rights, we would consider a display featuring a female fan in a black and white top”.

What is to be done?

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Before the completion of the football season, NUFCFAS will launch efforts centered on the subject ‘Support the Team – Not the Regime’. It’s time we demonstrated that we truly support the victims of the Saudi dictatorship.

Unfortunately, we must face some hard truths concerning the Saudi state’s takeover of Newcastle United and their continued ownership.

Newcastle City Council actively lobbied for the Saudi-led takeover to be authorized in 2021, with the then-CEO arguing that the transaction might be “transformational” for the city.

Although the council was able to join the push for Saudi ownership of Newcastle United, they have said almost nothing about the linked human rights issues, which continue to cause significant reputational damage to the city and region.

We are encouraging Newcastle City Council to openly condemn the Saudi regime’s grave human rights violations.

We urge councillors to propose a resolution to the council to name a street near St James’ Park after “Jamal Khashoggi” or “Human Rights”.

Sportswashing forum

On April 26th, we will organize a NEWCASTLE HUMAN RIGHTS / SPORTSWASHING FORUM and encourage attendees to examine the impact of the Saudi state’s purchase of the club on journalistic coverage of the issues as well as local democracy.

Newcastle vs Sheffield United on April 27th

On Saturday, April 27th, Newcastle United will face Sheffield United.

Sheffield United is owned by Saudi prince Abdullah bin Mosaad Al Saud.

This is an opportunity for fans of both clubs to demonstrate that, while we continue to support our teams, we oppose the Saudi dictatorship and its harsh policies, and they cannot use our club to divert attention away from their numerous and continuous human rights violations.

On April 27th, we wish to emphasize the condition for Saudi women, particularly the case of Saudi prisoner Salma al-Shehab. Salma, a mother of two, is currently serving 27 years in prison for sending tweets in support of Saudi prisoners of conscience.

She was attending Leeds University in Yorkshire when she was detained and imprisoned during a visit home. We urge Newcastle and Sheffield United fans to stand in solidarity with Salma. We also encourage fans of all clubs to join our fight against sportswashing and in support of human rights.

We urge all NUFC fanzines and social media groups to publicize Salma al-Shehab’s case in conjunction with the game versus Sheffield United.

We also ask WOR FLAGS to create a #FREESALMA flag.

Finally, we encourage Newcastle and Sheffield United fans to download and display #FREESALMA posters during the match in the 27th minute.

Salma has been in prison for 27 years for tweeting in support of free speech.

Let us use our freedom of expression to support Salma and all Saudi prisoners of conscience.

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