In the midst of completing their highly controversial takeover of Newcastle United through their Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia has announced some “human rights advances” that were pushed through by King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and ruling leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The new policies that have been announced are the abolishment of flogging as a form of punishment as well as the end of the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. Both policies were widely criticized, and rightfully so, by multiple human activist organizations.
Most recently the death penalty for crimes committed by minors was the subject of a lot of criticism when the story of Murtaja Qureiris was shared with the world this past year by CNN. Murtaja Qureiris is a 19-year-old activist who has been a long time critic of the Saudi Arabian government.
When he was 10 years old, Qureiris led a group of 30 boys on bicycles in a protest against the Saudi Arabian government. The entire protest was recorded on video with Qureiris drawing most of the attention as the video appears to show he is the leader of this protest. The subject of the protest was simple, and honestly something that everyone on the should get behind, as the boys wanted the simplest of things from their government: human rights.
Murtaja Qureiris says one thing in this video “The people demand human rights!” This statement resulted in Qureiris’ arrest a few years later, when he was 13, after the government got their hands on the video. He was then detained for a few years and just before his 18th birthday it was revealed that he was found guilty of inciting a violent protest and sentenced to death.
After CNN’s story on Qureiris gained international attention, the Saudi Arabian government faced a ton of international pressure to remove the death penalty from Qureiris’ sentence. The main criticism being that not only was this person sentenced to death for protesting, but also that they sentenced someone to death for a “crime” that was committed when the person was 10 years old.
Saudi Arabia eventually removed Qureiris’ death sentence and instead sentenced him to 12 years in prison with the possibility he could get out as early as 2022. Removing one death sentence for a crime committed when the individual was a minor was a step in the right direction, but did not eliminate the fact that they were still essentially sentencing children to death, which of course is inhumane.
Over the past year the country has faced a lot of international pressure to get rid of inhumane policies like the death penalty for crimes committed by minors as well as continuing to increase the rights of women in the country.
These pressures have been the result of the country carrying out its 2030 Vision which involves moving away from solely investing in oil and diversifying investment through strategic acquisitions. Saudi Arabia has found itself investing more and more in “the West.”
Since the 2030 Vision was announced in 2016 the Saudi Arabian PIF has purchased a 30% stake in the London based news companies The Independent and the Evening Standard, struck up a $40 billion dollar US Infrastructure deal, and have become a key stakeholder in Tesla. Additionally, the country has partnered with Manchester United in an effort to revamp football in their country as a part of the 2030 Vision.
The past few weeks Saudi Arabia has been active again investing outside of their country with recent investments including a $500 million investment in American-based events company Live Nation, an 8% stake worth over $400 million, and of course their potential $375 million purchase of Newcastle United.
All of this recent activity has put Saudi Arabia, and their multiple human rights issues, back into eyes of the public. None more than the potential purchase of Newcastle United. The Newcastle purchase has been met with a ton of criticism from journalists, human rights organizations, media companies, and fans since it was first rumored in January.
Humans rights group Amnesty International was the first organization to pen a letter opposing the purchase of Newcastle United back in January. As the deal edges closer to completion the Saudi Arabian government has been the subject of criticism from Amnesty International as well as similar human rights groups, journalists such as Miguel Delaney and Olvier Holt, TV personalities like Richard Keys, and companies associated with the Premier League like Qatari-owned beIN Sports. Additionally, the fiancee of Jamaal Kashogi, the journalist understood to be murdered by the Saudi regime, has spoken out against the deal.
Recently, many of these concerns were addressed. A lot of the criticism over the Saudi Human rights record was addressed with the announcement of their “advances in human rights” through the abolishment of the death penalty for crimes committed as a minor and the abolishment of flogging. Criticisms surrounding Saudi Arabia’s involvement in pirating British television, particularly Premier League football was addressed when it was revealed that as a part of joining the Premier League as an ownership group Saudi Arabia will have companies of their own bidding for broadcasting rights of the Premier League in the Middle East.
These “advances in human rights” have still been met with criticism and rightfully so. It is hardly a coincidence that these advances were all announced the week the most scrutinized acquisition by the PIF is set to be announced. Amnesty International raises the point that simply abolishing the death penalty for crimes committed as a minor, something that is illegal already under international law, is a small step in the right direction for instilling human rights in Saudi Arabia but is not enough.
In their statement responding to this news earlier this week AI stated:
While this represents a significant step for Saudi Arabia if implemented, the country’s continued use of the death penalty reached a shocking high last year with 184 recorded executions,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Regional Director.
The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment; no country should still be using it and Saudi Arabia’s record is particularly bad in this respect. Saudi Arabia must now establish an official moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolishing the death penalty completely.
It should also not be forgotten that dozens of peaceful human rights activists remain detained following convictions in grossly unfair trials solely for campaigning for equality and justice in a vastly repressive environment.
What is important to recognize is that although the action of abolishing flogging, and the death penalty for crimes committed as a minor are being painted as advances in human rights for the country, it doesn't change the fact that the country still has a terrible human rights record.
It’s illegal to protest the government in Saudi Arabia. Doing so results in an unfair trial, a prison sentence and often the death sentence for people who speak out against the government.
In the same week the country made “advances in human rights” multiple stories were written about the murder of a protester who was a member of a tribe that is slated to be displaced by the Saudi government as they build their own $500 billion high-tech city.
Even though protesting is understood as a basic human right, protesters are often targets of Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government with many either assassinated and painted as terrorists or like Murtaja Qureiris, his brother and his father, arrested with the potential to be sentenced to death or die in prison.
Despite their “advances in human rights” Saudi Arabia remains a country where women still are treated as second-class citizens, religious minorities are discriminated against, and migrant workers are put in some of the harshest working conditions possible.
Saudi Arabia can do so much more to improve the lives of their citizens, and although these are steps in the right direction, you have to question the timing of these as well. Saudi Arabia has made the claim time and time again that they will address some of these human rights violations but their only action regarding human rights comes alongside a flurry of actions to appease the Premier League and the general public in order to secure the purchase of Newcastle United.
These actions to “advance human rights” come alongside the earlier launch of a women’s football league in Saudi Arabia during a time in which the Premier League and FA have stressed the importance of women’s football, as well as a promise to be an active bidder in the rights to broadcast Premier League football after facing criticism for their role in pirating Premier League matches.
From a fan’s perspective you hope that investment in Newcastle is not simply the country’s attempt “sportswashing,” but a necessary step in Saudi Arabia’s quest to become more like their western counterparts. Newcastle as a whole will benefit from Saudi Investment whether people like it or not, but, at what cost.
On one hand Newcastle United will be revitalized, the city will see tons of investment, and the northeast as a whole could benefit. The new ownership group has already made plans for an immediate positive impact for people in the city by immediately performing some sort of gesture towards the NHS Hospital in Newcastle and immediately un-furloughing all staff.
On the other hand the kind gestures, the investment in the city, and the success of the club will conveniently shift the attention away from human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, just as PSG’s success has done for Qatar, and Manchester City’s success has done for the United Arab Emirates.
The hope is that these advances in human rights are permanent, the investments in Newcastle are genuine, and the relationships Saudi Arabia has built with western nations continue to flourish, signifying a new era in Saudi Arabia.
For now, that is all it is: a hope. Only the future will reveal Saudi Arabia’s intentions, and whether people like it or not, Newcastle United is along for the ride.