City defends asking Newcastle United chief for £23.6m 'helping hand'

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Emails have revealed Newcastle City Council’s ties to United’s Saudi owners.

Newcastle City Council’s relationship with Newcastle United’s owners has come under fire after it emerged senior figures have pushed for closer ties with Saudi Arabia.

Emails obtained by the NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing group (NUFCFAS) revealed top civic centre directors and NUFC have sought to develop a close relationship between the North East and the gulf state.

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Fans of Newcastle United show their support with banners and flags prior to the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion at St. James Park on May 11, 2024 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)Fans of Newcastle United show their support with banners and flags prior to the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion at St. James Park on May 11, 2024 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)
Fans of Newcastle United show their support with banners and flags prior to the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion at St. James Park on May 11, 2024 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

Among the 200 pages of emails released under a freedom of information request, it emerged city Labour leader Nick Kemp had asked the Magpies for £23.6m to fund one hot meal per day for all school children in the city for a year in late 2022.

According to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Kemp argued that the move, designed to help city families struggling with the cost of living crisis and address Newcastle’s high rates of child poverty, would be “an amazing act, one never forgotten, by the city council and indeed the city” and would give “huge kudos to the club ownership”.

The football club did not agree to the request, with CEO Darren Eales writing to say that it had set up a programme of community support itself – including a cash donation to the West End Foodbank and opening the Newcastle United Foundation’s NUCASTLE building as a warm space during the winter.

It was also revealed United co-owner Amanda Staveley lobbied the UK government on the council’s behalf as the city chased the money for the Tyne Bridge’s restoration.

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Overall, since the club’s Saudi-backed takeover in 2021 there has been a push to develop a relationship which goes beyond football. In 2023, Michelle Percy, the council’s director of investment and growth, emailed Ms Staveley: “there is an ambition for Newcastle to attract further investment from the [Gulf] region” to increase exports from the North East, and bring in tourists.

Newcastle United co-owner Amanda StaveleyNewcastle United co-owner Amanda Staveley
Newcastle United co-owner Amanda Staveley

Ms Percy also suggested the North East could create a “knowledge exchange programme” with Saudi Arabia around tourism and develop a “joint energy institute led by North East and Saudi Universities.”

The emails have led to backlash, with Amnesty International warning: “when it comes to attracting Saudi money there is no such thing as a free lunch”.

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Campaigns continued: “Newcastle City Council should be careful who it approaches for money – this type of relationship with Saudi Arabia aids its efforts to distract attention from its appalling human rights record from a crackdown that has seen women imprisoned for demanding equality to a record number of executions.”

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A Newcastle City Council spokesperson said: “We pride ourselves on being a diverse, inclusive, and tolerant city. We expect all organisations based in Newcastle to share those important values. 

“As a City of Sanctuary, we share concerns about human rights issues in countries across the world. However, it is important to recognise it is for government to take on the role of addressing those concerns, at a national level. 

“We have also made clear in the past that we do not think it is fair to blame those involved in the day-to-day management of Newcastle United, themselves a Football Club of Sanctuary, with alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. 

“We have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Newcastle United. The club is ingrained into the fabric of our city, and they make a huge contribution both on and off the pitch. 

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“The club is a source of immense pride for supporters and a successful Newcastle United can only be a good thing for our residents, and the wider city region. 

“Like local authorities across the country, we will always look at opportunities to drive investment and growth to benefit all our residents. Newcastle is not alone in this. 

“International investment creates jobs, opportunity and boosts the city economy, and that ultimately puts money in the pockets of all our residents. 

“It is an important responsibility, one we take seriously, and we will continue to work collaboratively to attract international investment from across the world.” 

Newcastle United declined to comment.

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