The English Premier League football club Newcastle United was bought by a group led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Many Newcastle fans welcomed the acquisition, hoping the Gulf kingdom investment would transform the team’s fortunes on the pitch, but was condemned by critics of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.
Here are some of the reasons it proved controversial.
Infamous murder of dissident journalist
Saudi Arabia’s international standing was badly damaged by the October 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist who was a prominent critic of the government.
A UN-appointed human rights expert said Khashoggi was “brutally killed” at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of Saudi agents. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and other senior officials have also been indicted. Although the crown prince denied any involvement, his reputation abroad was severely tarnished.
Khashoggi’s girlfriend Hatice Cengiz called the Saudi takeover of Newcastle “heartbreaking”.
The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which has an 80% stake in Newcastle, is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although the Premier League said it received assurances that the Saudi government would not control the club.
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Imprisonment of women’s rights activists
In 2018, Saudi authorities arrested 13 women’s rights activists who had campaigned to lift the ban on driving women.
At least four of the women were allegedly tortured and sexually harassed by interrogation.
In 2020, a terrorism court found the most prominent activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, guilty of crimes against the state. He denied the allegations and UN human rights experts described them as “false”.
While the judge has suspended part of her five-year prison sentence, paving the way for her release in February, she is subject to a travel ban and other restrictions.
All other activists but one are reportedly out of jail on bail or serving suspended sentences.
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Repression of important intellectuals, religious and reformists
Women’s rights activists were not the only people detained as part of a crackdown on critics in Saudi Arabia, where political parties, trade unions and independent human rights groups are banned.
Dozens of human rights defenders, intellectuals, academics, religious and reformists have also been arrested since 2017, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. according to international human rights organizations.
Many have faced what Amnesty International said the trials were grossly unfair on vague allegations of terrorism and cybercrime, and received harsh sentences, including the death penalty.
Days before the Newcastle takeover, a court upheld a 20-year prison sentence imposed on Saudi-American aid worker Abdul Rahman al-Sadhan for writing satirical tweets criticizing the authorities.
His sister, Areej, said he was “brutally tortured” prior to his sentencing and that the Newcastle takeover was an attempt to “whiten” Saudi abuse.
The devastating war in Yemen
Saudi Arabia was heavily criticized for a military campaign in neighboring Yemen that caused a humanitarian catastrophe.
A Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 after Yemeni rebels took control of much of the country’s west and forced the president to flee overseas.
More than 100,000 people were reportedly killed in the fighting, with a monitoring group that attributes 8,700 civilian deaths from coalition air strikes.
It is also estimated that tens of thousands of people have died from indirect causes, such as a lack of food, health services and infrastructure, while a partial blockade by the coalition has hampered efforts to help the 20 million people in need of humanitarian aid.
UN experts say both sides to the conflict may have committed war crimes, although the coalition has insisted on respecting the rules of war.
Extensive use of the death penalty
Saudi Arabia is among the top executioners in the world.
At least 40 people were executed in the kingdom between January and July 2021, according to Amnesty International.
In June, a man was executed for crimes he allegedly committed when he was 17, despite previous assurances from the kingdom that it had abolished the death penalty for minors.
Mustafa al-Darwish was convicted on several charges related to his participation in anti-government protests, although he testified at the trial that his confessions were extracted through torture.
Punishment of homosexual relationships
Although Saudi Arabia has no laws on sexual orientation or gender identity, sexual relations outside of marriage, including same-sex sex, are strictly prohibited.
According to the country’s interpretation of Islamic law, the death penalty is a possible punishment for same-sex sexual conduct.
It is also illegal for men to “behave like women” or wear women’s clothes and vice versa.
An anti-cybercrime law criminalizes online activities that go against public order and religious morality.
In July 2020, a court sentenced a Yemeni blogger to 10 months in prison and then deportation for posting a video call for equal rights, even for gays.
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