Newcastle United fans say they will raise issues about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record even if they support the prospective takeover of the club.
The country’s Public Investment Fund is expected to finance 80% of the £300m takeover, which is understood to be close to completion.
But in an online forum, which involved over 2,000 fans, Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) chair Alex Hurst said: “We exist to be a critical friend of the club, and hold them to account.”
Human rights groups and the fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz, have opposed the takeover.
The debate on the issue has been framed by supporters’ overwhelming desire to get rid of current owner Mike Ashley, who has been in charge of the club for 13 years.
A survey published last week by NUST, which has more than 10,000 members, showed that 96.7% of fans said they were in favour of the takeover.
But during the two-hour discussion, in which a statement by Khashoggi’s fiancee was read out and contributions came from fans and Amnesty International, local MP Chi Onwurah said the issues were a lot more “nuanced” than some fans had been given credit for on social media.
Supporter Greg Morrison said: “I do feel quite conflicted. While we are not responsible for what goes on [in Saudi Arabia], we have to accept we are attached to Saudi Arabia and the issues attached to that.
“My plea is that fans don’t resort to allowing our club be used to justify or defend what goes on in Saudi Arabia, but accept and acknowledge that there are issues and encourage debate.”
NUST board member Greg Tomlinson added: “It’s not impossible to be excited about Mike Ashley’s departure and still feel concerned about the [human rights] issues.
“Those feelings are not mutually exclusive.”
Cengiz’s statement said fans should “stand together and block” the takeover because the PIF was chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who she said was responsible for her fiancee’s murder in October 2018.
Bin Salman has denied ordering the killing of Khashoggi, with Saudi authorities blaming a “rogue operation”.
Gateshead MP Ian Mearns added: “I can see an awful lot potentially going wrong with this takeover, but it’s time we got rid of an owner who views paying fans as an asset to be sweated or milked.”
Jameela Khan from Amnesty International said she would welcome the critical voice of Newcastle fans.
“We can’t say who should own club,” she said. “But as long as there is a space for people to criticise Saudi Arabia, that’s all we can hope for.”
‘We want to have an influence’
Several fans hoped the new owners would ensure supporters were actively involved in the decision-making process at St James’ Park, having been marginalised under Ashley.
NUST director Peter Maughan said: “We cannot have a say in how a sovereign nation runs itself but I hope we can have a say in the way the club is run. Whoever owns the club, we want to have an influence.”
Steve Cockburn, an NUST member and Amnesty worker said he was “uneasy” about the takeover, but added: “We have a role to protect our reputation and our values and commitment to social justice. We have no choice about the takeover, but we do have a choice in how we react to it and I’m heartened by today’s discussion.
“Even if the owners own the club, they don’t own our views.”