“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know!”William Wilberforce, 1791
It is now well over two years since the takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi PIF, and North East Bylines has been regularly reviewing what life is like in that Middle Eastern kingdom and what has happened there since that takeover in October 2021. There are some who would claim that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a place where human rights are not respected and that the regime is a murderous regime, which starts illegal wars and responsible for many human rights abuses. But is all that really true? Let’s see what has been happening and look at the hard evidence. How has Saudi Arabia been reported in recent weeks?
Parts I-5 of this survey have covered the period from 7 October 2021 to the end of November this year. So, what has been happening in Saudi Arabia since then?
On 1 November it was noted on Sky Sports that Amnesty International had called for “human rights commitments” to be agreed with potential hosts before any final decision was made. Steve Cockburn, the charity’s head of economic and social justice, was reported as saying: “FIFA must now make clear how it expects hosts to comply with its human rights policies. It must also be prepared to halt the bidding process if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed. The best chance for FIFA to obtain binding guarantees to protect workers’ rights, ensure freedom of expression and prevent discrimination linked to the World Cup is during the host selection process – not after the hosts have been confirmed and tournament preparation has begun.”
It was then reported in the Irish Independent on 2 November that In a statement to the PA news agency, Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said: “FIFA awarding the World Cup without any competition or transparent bidding and assessment process takes us back to the dark time for football that delivered the Qatar and Russia World Cups in a corrupt process that led to years of arrests. With more than 11 years until the 2034 World Cup, why were all other federations that had previously expressed an interest in bidding to host a World Cup discouraged or disallowed?”
It was also noted that in announcing the bids, FIFA stressed that its dialogue with Saudi Arabia prior to the Congress would include ensuring its human rights obligations are met, but Worden has low expectations saying, “the previous due diligence process to assess bids and deal with predictable human rights problems wasn’t perfect – but it existed. FIFA’s human rights policy will be worth less than the paper it’s printed on if Saudi Arabia’s bid goes forward as planned”.
On 7 November Professor David McGillivray, chair in event and digital cultures at the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events, University of the West of Scotland argued in the Glasgow-based newspaper the Herald that with regards to the 2034 World Cup being played in Saudi Arabia that, “public scepticism about the value of mega sport events is at its highest level. If these events are to deliver on their progressive, ethical proclamations, then they cannot continue to be awarded without binding commitments to addressing prospective host nations’ problematic human rights records. This outcome must be negotiated before the World Cup selection decision is finally confirmed. Unfortunately, for the 2034 process, this will now be even more difficult to achieve with only a sole bidder in play.”
On 16 November, the Daily Mail reported that Australian musician Tash Sultana hag courted controversy after announcing they would be performing in Saudi Arabia. It was noted that the singer-songwriter, 28, who is non-binary, had taken to social media that day to reveal that they would be performing at the Soundstorm musical festival in December. However, it was also re[ported that some of Tash’s fans had criticised them for performing in a country that has been denounced by many groups for violating human rights.
Then on 21 November, the BBC reported that for Saudi Arabia, playing host this weekend to the G20 group of the world’s leading economies, even in just a virtual setting, is a moment of great national pride. However, it was also reported that for human rights activists around the world, the G20 meeting was a cause of deep disquiet. Many had originally called for a boycott, but had recently turned to appeals to leaders of the G20 to use the opportunity to put pressure on the Saudi authorities. It was noted that human rights groups had a host of concerns.
One of those concerns was that of female activists jailed, including Loujain al-Hathloul who was said to be the most prominent of a group of women activists arrested in 2018. It was reported that, “according to her family, she was beaten, given electric shocks and threatened with rape after her arrest.”
Another concern was said to be the killing of a journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, which had caused shock and revulsion around the world. It was also noted that for a short time it had also caused a diplomatic crisis. This of course was the case of Jamal Khashoggi who the BBC reported had been suffocated and then dismembered by a Saudi hit squad. It was noted that, “eight men were sentenced, after a trial that was widely condemned for failing to hold the masterminds of the killing to account. But Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to the country’s de facto leader Mohammad Bin Salman, was exonerated.”
The third concern the BBC noted was said to be the five-year-long conflict involving Saudi Arabia and rebels in Yemen which had “created what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – and both sides have been accused of potential war crimes.” It was also noted that the civilian toll from air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition – in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government – was mounting.
It was reported in the Korea Times on 23 November that a group of 15 human rights organizations were urging member states of the World Expo supervising body to vote against Saudi Arabia in the country’s ongoing bid to host the upcoming fair in 2030, The reported noted that the organisations were citing its human rights abuses and violations of freedom of speech.
It was further reported that the organizations, which include Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), had sent letters to the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) member states on 21 November. This was said to be about a week before the election to decide the host city for the upcoming event. The other human rights groups also include Freedom House, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights and the Human Rights Foundation.
The report quoted the letter as saying that, “Saudi authorities routinely commit human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention, target women’s rights activities and human rights defenders, and violate the rights to due process, fair trial and freedom of expression,” and furthermore that “Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world, with at least 1,243 executions recorded between 2010 and 2021.”
On 1 December, the Saudi Gazette, described as an English-language daily newspaper, launched in 1976 and published in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, reported that the head of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission (HRC), which is an arm of the Saudi regime, had emphasized the importance of dealing with human rights objectively and non-selectivity in applying its standards. It was further noted that HRC President Dr. Hala Al-Tuwaijri had made the remarks as she led Saudi Arabia’s delegation participating in the third round of the joint human rights dialogue between the Kingdom and the European Union.
On the same day, the news website This is Money was reporting that the UK Government had been urged to probe Saudi Arabia’s swoop for Heathrow after campaigners had attacked the move as ‘whitewashing’ the country’s dubious human rights record. It was further noted that, “Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, whose vast assets include Newcastle United FC, this week agreed to pay Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial £1billion for a 10% stake in the west London airport.”
Meanwhile. on 3 December, The i ran a story about, “The women fleeing oppression in Saudi Arabia for the West”. the story of a woman who now calls herself Robyn. The story goes on to relate, how Robyn had said that, “I tried to leave my whole life. From a really young age I felt that this place is a time bomb. I was counting the days, feeling in constant danger, feeling a constant threat over my life. And when I was 15, I decided I’m going to make a plan to leave.”
It was noted that her plan would take years to enact, involving an escape plot that would culminate in an altercation in the street, with Robyn being choked and dragged by her hijab, in a final attempt by her family to bundle her back to Saudi Arabia. Most importantly it was said that to flee would mean chiselling away at the guardianship system, a structure of laws and customs embedded within Saudi Arabia which enables men to exert power over almost any decision a woman can make. The story goes on to say that, “she asks to be called Robyn. She says she cannot bear to hear the name she was born with because that was the name her father used when he was beating her, burning her, dictating her every movement. He was Robyn’s guardian, but he was not the only man, nor even the only family member, who controlled her.”
On 7 December, there was another story reported on the Zawya news website in a piece written by a Saudi Gazette writer. As noted above, the Saudi Gazette is as the name suggests, a Saudi-based news outlet. The story noted that, a delegation from the Saudi-French Friendship Committee in the French National Assembly, headed by Ameila Lakrafi, reviewed with Dr Al-Tuwaijri relations between Saudi Arabia and France, in addition to discussing bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the field of humanitarian rights. It was also reported that “several topics of common interest were touched on during the meeting. The meeting comes within the framework of Lakrafi’s visit and her accompanying delegation to Saudi Arabia.”
On 14 December, the BBC reported on the reasons why Saudi Arabia was spending so much money on sport. It was noted in the report that some campaign groups were saying that the timing of this investment can be explained by Saudi Arabia using the hosting of sport to rebrand and reintegrate with the international community after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 sparked condemnation. It was also said that Prince Abdulaziz denied any link with the country’s human rights record, saying sportswashing claims are “very shallow”, stating that sport had been a driver for reforms and progress, pointing to the number of girls and women playing football.
It was further noted that while critics accepted that there had been some significant social reforms in Saudi Arabia in recent years, including in 2018 changing the law to allow women to drive and to attend football matches, they also argued that there had been evidence of more repression, such as a rise in the number of executions and in arrests for online dissent. It was also stated that critics also made the point that women’s rights are still restricted through the male guardianship system, and that homosexuality is illegal, while there is also controversy over the restriction of free speech and the war in Yemen.
On 15 December it was reported by American cable business news outlet CNBCTV that the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of Saudi Arabia to protect the rights of skilled labourers from India. The NSDC is said to be a public-private partnership organization that aims to promote skill development and enhance employability of people in India. NSDC CEO Ved Mani Tiwari was reported as saying that, “skilled labourers in India can register themselves at NSDC… after which we will come to know where they are going, for which work and with whom they will be working.” It was also noted that the registration process would be free of cost, with Ved Mani Tiwari adding that skilled labourers from all categories, including AC mechanics, and car painters, could register themselves on NSDC.
On 19 December, Human Rights Watch, in a review of 2023, recalled how in July, a Saudi court had sentenced a retired schoolteacher by the name of Muhammad al-Ghamdi to death. It was further noted that this was simply because of his Twitter and YouTube activity. It was said that, “the verdict marked a stark escalation of the Saudi government’s crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful dissent in the country.”
On 22 December Paul Suttor writing in the Australian-based sports media outlet The Roar, claimed that the latest blow to international cricket was the news that the BCCI is considering a second version of the IPL each year, paid for by Saudi Arabian oil money from its Public Investment Fund.
Suttor commented that, “Saudi Arabia’s controversial, yet ultimately successful, sportswashing move into golf, football and Formula 1 means more and more sports will be in their sights as both playthings for the crown prince and shiny diversions away from their horrendous human rights record.”
On 26 December, Michael Day, writing in the I commented that, “after Saudi Arabia’s remarkably – some would say shockingly – quick return to the diplomatic fold following the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom appears to be on something of a roll.”
It was further noted that, “despite questions over its human rights record and conflict in Israel and Gaza, Saudi Arabia intends to reinforce its status as a leading regional power in 2024.”
On 28 December, a comment piece in the Guardian, by Nick Ames ,noted that Saudi Arabia’s 2034 ambitious World Cup plans would force FIFA into what was described as a “leap of faith”, ad that it remained to be seen exactly how the country’s human rights record would conform to FIFA’s guidelines, which it was noted, “are nominally aligned with the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights.”
Regarding the tournament as a whole, Ames commented: “There are also concerns that locals have paid an awful price for the government’s giant projects to date. The proposed new World Cup stadium, earmarked for the site of a desalination plant next to the Red Sea, is an extension of the sprawling Jeddah Central project that has resulted in mass evictions and displacements on spurious pretexts. A sobering and essential report from ALQST, a human rights organisation that focuses on events in Saudi Arabia, details the violations inflicted upon members of the Huwaitat tribe early in the construction process for Neom. FIFA’s tournament will need balletic deftness to avoid touching any such issues.“
Finally, on New Year’s Eve the Guardian writer David Hills, when handing out the alternative 2023 sports awards: quotes, gaffes and animal cameos, commented that, the straightest bat on Saudi issues belonged to Eddie Howe, who it was said was still not prepared to answer press questions on Newcastle United’s owners in a year, when it was noted, the Saudi regime had sentenced a retired teacher to death for criticising Saudi policy on social media. Howe was reported as saying about the Saudi ownership of Newcastle United that, “it’s not my area, I don’t want it to be my area.” It was also noted that during 2023 Howe had commented on September’s felling of the Sycamore Gap tree saying, “I’m really saddened by it. I don’t quite know how to describe it … when I heard the news, I was just so disappointed that an act can ruin something that’s there for the pleasure of everybody, it’s such a beautiful thing. Very sad.”
So, there is evidence about what was happening in Saudi Arabia from early November until the end of December and news relating to Saudi Arabia. Are those who accuse the Saudi regime of having a bad human rights record being fair?
In November 1967 Newcastle University became the only university in Britain to honour Dr Martin Luther King Jr. in his lifetime. One of King’s most famous quotes about his own time was that, “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” What should we say and what should we do in our time in response to issues such as the human rights record of the Saudi regime?