Newcastle FC and “sportwashing”

FairSquare Director on Newcastle United and “sportswashing”

FairSquare director Nick McGeehan has used an article in openDemocracy to explore the implications of “sportswashing” for football and democracy, in the wake of the Premier League’s decision to agree to the takeover of Newcastle United FC by a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The article offers potential lessons for Newcastle, drawn from the experience in Manchester, where Manchester City has since 2008 been owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, an investment vehicle for the ruling Al Nahyan family.

“What we have seen in Manchester, and what we are now witnessing in Newcastle, is that the purchase and generous financing of a football club results in influential groups of people becoming invested in the success of your project. The investment can be political, in the case of MPs and councillors who don’t want to be voted out of office for going against what supporters want and who see opportunities for the regeneration of dilapidated areas of the city. (Manchester’s Abu Dhabi-financed regeneration resulted in the construction of a load of luxury flats that have reportedly exacerbated inequality in a city facing a homelessness crisis.) The investment can also be commercial, in the cases of the businesses that will profit from the petrodollars poured into the city or the newspapers and broadcasters that fear a backlash if they delve too deeply into allegations of the new owners’ involvement in torture, or war crimes, or child slavery, or even pre-meditated murder.”

McGeehan argues that, “for football and for the UK in particular, the takeover is but a microcosm of a far wider and deeper issue of how dark money has taken hold of the island”.

In April 2020 FairSquare called on the Premier League to disqualify the takeover attempt, in line with the requirements of its Owners’ and Directors’ Test.

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Launch of Vital Signs project

New initiative to study deaths of migrant workers in the Gulf

FairSquare is launching the Vital Signs project, a new initiative to quantify and research the deaths of migrant workers in the six GCC states.

Nobody knows the true figure for many migrant workers die in the Gulf, or the causes of their deaths. But available statistics indicate it is many thousands of people every year, a large majority of working age.

Vital Signs, which is being supported by Humanity United, will run from 2021 to 2023. Each year of the project will see the publication of a statistical report, examining key trends related to the deaths of migrant workers from five Asian origin countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Philippines – in the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The reports will make tailored recommendations to governments and others.

Find out more about the Vital Signs project

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Business and human rights in Saudi Arabia

Guidance for businesses operating in Saudi Arabia

FairSquare has collaborated with Amnesty International on the production of new guidance for businesses operating in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been seeking support from international investors and businesses to help deliver its flagship Vision 2030, with its expansive development plans capped by a set of “giga-projects” designed to spearhead the development of whole new economic sectors.

The Amnesty briefing highlights six of the most salient human rights risks for companies to consider in Saudi Arabia, given the possibility of one or more of them intersecting with their business operations, activities or investments:

– the abuse of migrant worker rights;
– discrimination against women;
– risks linked to surveillance, data gathering and “smart cities”;
– risks linked to land, housing and development projects;
– risks to business partners; and
– war crimes in the conflict in Yemen.

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New FairSquare Policy Brief on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

New Policy Brief on migrant workers in Saudi Arabia

Credit: Alamy

In a new policy brief released this month, FairSquare finds that the issue of migrant worker rights is likely to become ever more salient for the Saudi Arabian government in coming years.

With hundreds of thousands of migrants needed to construct the giga-projects that sit at the heart of the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 strategic plan, international attention on this issue is certain to increase in the coming years. Until now migrant workers’ rights have rarely been given prominence, as external focus on the country has mainly centred around freedom of expression, women’s rights and the death penalty. Now flagship projects like Neom, the Red Sea Project and the leisure city of Qiddiya are likely to change all that.

FairSquare’s policy brief, the first in an occasional series, charts the inextricable links between Saudi Arabia’s continued struggle to find meaningful employment for its growing population of citizens and its historic reliance on migrants to staff the private sector. The kafala system, which holds migrants In a restrictive, abusive bind at the hands of their employers, has played an important role in creating and sustaining Saudi national identity, providing a constant demonstration of the enhanced status and standing of citizens as against foreigners. In parallel, businesses have developed a reliance on (an “addiction” to, some say)  migrants and the cheap convenience the kafala system guarantees.

Simply replacing migrants in the private sector with Saudis is unlikely to be feasible in the short term – in many sectors, there is still little overlap between work migrants are doing and the jobs that Saudis are qualified and willing to do. Nevertheless intensified Saudization in the past decade has meant a reduction in the number of migrant workers in the country, a trend sharpened by Covid-19. Such departures have routinely been enforced, accompanied by high levels of brutality, and migrants have increasingly been demonised in the Saudi media.

Ultimately, rather than relying on mass repatriations, the government will need to improve conditions for all workers in the private sector if it wants to entice more Saudis into the workforce and attract the skilled migrants it wants to help it deliver Vision 2030. That – combined with learnings from Qatar, which has come under intense scrutiny over migrant labour conditions and embarked on a reform programme in partnership with the ILO – may explain the government’s deepening engagement with international labour institutions, and rumblings throughout 2020 about the abolition of kafala. Just yesterday, a local newspaper repeated predictions that the government was set to abolish kafala, while the government is set to hold a press conference next week in which it will outline reforms to “increase the competitiveness, attractiveness and flexibility of the Saudi labor market in accordance with international standards”.

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Premier League: Adopt Human Rights Policy

Premier League: Adopt Human Rights Policy

Credit: J. Pellgen

The English Premier League should respect human rights throughout all of its operations, including as it evaluates a bid by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to acquire Newcastle United FC, Human Rights Watch and FairSquare Projects said today. The Premier League and the Football Association should consider adopting a comprehensive human rights policy in line with the policy put in place by FIFA in 2017.

Human Rights Watch, in June 2020, and FairSquare, in April, separately wrote to the Premier League CEO, Richard Masters, outlining concerns around the prospective purchase by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The Premier League’s short responses, which contained identical language, failed to engage with the concerns raised about whether the buyer met the league’s own tests for prospective owners. The league also did not say whether it was taking Saudi Arabia’s human rights record into account when considering the sale, stating only that the sale to a “company based in Saudi Arabia” was subject to due processes that “cannot be conducted in public and on which we cannot comment.”

“The Premier League shouldn’t leave FIFA’s human rights policy to one side and ignore Saudi human rights abuses as it considers the sale of one of its clubs to the country’s sovereign wealth fund,” said Benjamin Ward, United Kingdom director at Human Rights Watch. “Adopting a comprehensive human rights policy and including human rights as a criterion for evaluating potential buyers of football clubs would set a positive example.”

On July 6, the United Kingdom introduced a new global human rights sanctions regime which included asset freezes and travel bans for 20 Saudi men connected to the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Those designated include Saud al-Qahtani, a former close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is chairman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.

The Saudi fund made its bid to acquire Newcastle United in January, but the Premier League has been considering the sale since then. On June 30, Masters appeared before the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee and said the potential sale was “complicated,” adding that, “when [approval processes] drag on sometimes there is a requirement for information.” It is unclear what information Masters was referencing.

Saudi Arabia has faced unprecedented scrutiny over its human rights abuses since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in June 2017. A November 2019 Human Rights Watch report “The High Cost of Change: Repression under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reform” documented how Mohammed bin Salman’s elevation to crown prince coincided with a reorganization of the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, placing them directly under the royal court’s oversight.

The Saudi authorities then began a series of arrest campaigns targeting independent clerics, public intellectuals, and prominent women’s rights activists. Women’s rights activists and others targeted have reported that the authorities tortured them in detention. Saudi Arabia is a UK Foreign Office priority country because of its poor human rights record.

In June 2019, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, released the findings of her investigation into the Khashoggi killing. Callamard found evidence that responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder extends beyond the 11 people tried for the murder in Saudi Arabia, and that the mission to execute Khashoggi required “significant government coordination, resources, and finances.” The special rapporteur determined that there is credible evidence warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for their role in the murder.

The crown prince also has served as Saudi Arabia’s defense minister since 2015, and since March 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented unlawful airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that have bombed homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. In November 2018, during Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Buenos Aires for the G20 Summit, the Argentine judiciary took steps to formally investigate his possible responsibility for war crimes in Yemen and alleged torture of Saudi citizens.

The Premier League already has a responsibility to respect human rights throughout all of its operations. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets out these responsibilities, including the expectation that businesses will adopt specific policies and conduct due diligence to identify any risks of contributing to human rights harms. Such harm may include conferring reputational benefits that help cover up human rights abuses. The Premier League’s current handbook does not include human rights under its “owners and directors test,” even though ownership of prominent football clubs by state entities or individuals close to state leaders is on the rise throughout Europe.

Under pressure from activists, fans, and sponsors, in 2017, FIFA amended its statutes, setting up a Human Rights Advisory Board and adopting a landmark Human Rights Policy that states “Human rights commitments are binding on all FIFA bodies and officials.” The new policy mandates that bidders to host FIFA events must map all human rights risks and provide a strategy to address them. It states that FIFA will embed respect for human rights in its member associations.

“The drawn-out saga of the Newcastle takeover bid has exposed the inadequacies of the Premier League’s current arrangements for assessing and managing human rights risks” said James Lynch, founding director of FairSquare. “A rigorous policy, drafted in good faith and with full institutional support for implementation, would go a long way to protecting the league in future.”

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Premier League should reject Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle FC

Call to disqualify proposed Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United FC

Credit: POMED

The Saudi-backed bid to take over Newcastle United FC should not be allowed to proceed, FairSquare has told the Premier League. In a letter to the League’s Chief Executive, the organisation argues that the conduct of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince – including in relation to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 – should be enough to disqualify the bid:

“Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the chairman of the Public Investment Fund, presents a demonstrable threat to the vitality, integrity and reputation of the English game and to the future of Newcastle United. We would encourage the Premier League to take this opportunity to outline a clear position in this regard, and one that prevents governments from taking control of English football clubs and running them for political ends.”

FairSquare finds that the Newcastle takeover bid fails the Premier League Owner and Director test on two grounds: under paragraph F1.6 in relation to the conduct of Mohamed bin Salman; and secondly under paragraph F1.2, with regard to Newcastle’s relationship with Sheffield United FC, in relation to the “power to determine or influence the management or administration of another Club.”

The human rights organisation has encouraged the Premier League to consult with UN experts, including those who investigated the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and has offered to arrange a a private briefing from credible independent experts, including Saudi Arabian nationals.

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Covid-19 and migrant workers in the Gulf

NGO coalition calls on Gulf states to ensure protection of migrant workers during Covid-19 response

Credit: International Domestic Workers Federation

A coalition of trade unions and NGOs, including FairSquare Projects, has called on the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to take steps to ensure that migrant workers receive adequate protection from Covid-19.

The groups are urging the Gulf governments to:
– Ensure equal access to testing and medical assistance for all workers, and to ensure that worker are not deterred from seeking assistance from fear of detention of deportation.
– Ensure sanctions imposed for violating quarantines do not include detention.
– Where possible, to seek input from national and sectoral trade unions; ensure that workers who are prevented from working continue to receive their wages and have an adequate standard of living. This includes monitoring businesses to ensure working conditions are safe and that businesses are implementing guidelines and requirements.
– Carry out public awareness-raising campaigns to ensure that workers, including domestic workers, do not face discrimination or stigma as a result of the pandemic.
– Ensure domestic workers are provided with access to timely and adequate healthcare, sick pay and protective equipment.

The call follows reports of a spike in cases of Covid-19 among migrant workers to the Gulf, largely attributed to poor and cramped living conditions, and a lack of adequate protective equipment. 

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