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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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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Liverpool FC and worker deaths in Qatar

Liverpool FC backs FairSquare call for investigations into worker deaths in Qatar

Credit: The Workers Cup film

Liverpool Football Club have supported calls by FairSquare for thorough investigations into the deaths of migrant workers in Qatar.

In a letter to FairSquare, ahead of Liverpool’s appearance at the Club World Cup in Qatar, the club’s Chief Executive said:

“Like any responsible organisation, we support your assertion that any and all unexplained deaths should be investigated thoroughly and that bereaved families should receive the justice they deserve.”

FairSquare had written to Liverpool in November raising serious concerns about the hundreds of migrant workers who die every year in Qatar, with new evidence linking their deaths to heat stress. Liverpool also told FairSquare the club has sought assurances from the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is organising the tournament and the 2022 World Cup, about the progress of investigations into the deaths of two men who had been working on the construction of football stadiums.
Nick McGeehan, director of FairSquare, has welcomed Liverpool’s intervention:

“In their detailed expression of support for investigations into worker deaths and compensation for families, Liverpool have demonstrated more clarity of thought than Fifa and all of their sponsors put together.”

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