Lack of civic leadership has enabled Manchester and Newcastle sportswashing projects

FairSquare report provides further evidence of the harms of state ownership of football clubs

A new report published today finds that political leaders in Manchester and Newcastle have not only declined multiple opportunities to use their positions of influence to express criticism of serious and systematic human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but have effectively assisted these two deeply abusive and profoundly anti-democratic states’ efforts to set up ‘soft power enclaves’ in cities with proud histories of protest and dissent. 

Easy Cities to Buy, a FairSquare report, details the overwhelmingly supportive response of politicians in both Manchester and Newcastle to the respective takeovers, and the lack of critical coverage from local media. It also highlights the role of the UK government in pursuing investment from the Gulf states in cities that have suffered from deindustrialisation and government-imposed austerity.

The report draws on swathes of material in the public domain including media investigations, peer-reviewed research, parliamentary records and leaked emails, and complements this with new material, including insight and analysis from seventeen academics, activists, journalists, football supporters and politicians.

Nick McGeehan, co-director of FairSquare and co-author, said:

“It’s normal for politicians and officials to welcome investment in their cities and to want to respond to their communities’ understandable desire for footballing success. But to date, civic leaders in both Manchester and Newcastle have been wilfully blind to the risks of allowing these states to establish centres of political power and influence in their cities, to the extent that they  have effectively aided their efforts.” 

While there has been considerable commentary on the reputational, political and commercial motivations of the UAE and Saudi Arabian states in buying English football clubs, the FairSquare report  seeks to put the focus on how these relationships have played out for the two cities and their residents.

The report details how the most senior and influential politicians in Manchester and Newcastle have repeatedly declined to criticise the UAE and Saudi Arabia. More seriously, the leaders of Manchester City Council have defended the UAE and suppressed criticism of their human rights record, and MPs in Newcastle and the wider region allowed themselves to be manipulated into applying significant political pressure on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to take control of Newcastle United, highlighting the critical role of the UK government under the leadership of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in that regard.

Newcastle and Saudi Arabia

in August 2022 the UK NGO Reprieve wrote letters to three MPs representing Newcastle constituencies – Nick Brown, Catherine McKinnell, and Chi Onwurah –  and four local councillors asking them to help set up a meeting with Newcastle Chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan to discuss the case of Abdullah al-Huwaiti, a Saudi national facing the death penalty for alleged offences committed when he was 14 years old. None of the MPs or councillors responded to their request.

Chi Onwurah’s record on the issue is particularly notable. In September 2020, when the Saudi takeover had stalled, she presented a petition to parliament on behalf of constituents, expressing concern that “Premier League inactivity led to the collapse of the recent Newcastle United takeover”. She has since repeatedly criticised Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, without apparently damaging in any way her relationship with the Saudi-led consortium that controls Newcastle United. On the day of the takeover in October 2021, two members of the consortium singled her out for thanks. “A big thank you to @ChiOnwurah” tweeted Mehrdad Ghodoussi. Jamie Reuben also took to Twitter and described Onwurah as one of the people “who made this day possible.” 

Manchester and the UAE

The British government was instrumental in increasing UAE investment in Manchester after its takeover of Manchester City Football Club in 2008, with a member of a 10-person team of officials going to Manchester City Council’s chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein in 2013 with a “message from the prime minister” to sell the idea of the UAE investing in Manchester.

Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese subsequently referred to the UAE as “exemplary business partners” and publicly defended their human rights record. In 2015, senior figures within Manchester City Council consulted with senior figures within Manchester City Football Club on a Freedom of Information request into their joint property development submitted by a Human Rights Watch researcher, suggesting that the club “google this guy”. In 2019 senior figures from the city council insisted that reference to its relationship with the UAE be removed from an event commemorating the city’s historical support for free speech and democracy. Richard Leese and Howard Bernstein have both since been appointed Honorary Presidents of Manchester City FC.

See more of FairSquare’s work on sport here.