Newcastle boss Eddie Howe has defended the club’s decision to travel to Saudi Arabia for a mid-season training camp amid criticism from human rights campaigners.
The Magpies party will head for the Middle East after Saturday’s Premier League clash with Leeds as Howe seeks to foster a new togetherness in preparation for a tooth-and-nail battle for top-flight survival.
Amanda Staveley’s consortium, in which Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund owns an 80 per cent stake, bought the club in October last year and did so against a background of concern over the Gulf state’s human rights record and accusations of “sportswashing”.
Asked what he would say to those who considered the warm weather camp controversial, head coach Howe said: “It’s a football decision.
“We’re doing it for the benefit of the players, the group, in our fight to stay in the division, and that’s my only thought.
“The facilities and everything around the trip are going to be first class. We will train and we will train hard and we will train in preparation for our next game, so that’s always going to be my only focus.”
Staveley’s consortium had to give assurances to the Premier League of the separation between PIF, of which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman and club chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan the governor, and the State in order for its takeover to be approved.
Asked further if he would be happy to meet Mohammed bin Salman and if that might prove a distraction, Howe added: “There’ll be no distraction from my side.
“As I said, it’s about the training and making sure that the players are focused on our next game. We’re just doing it in a different environment to bring the group closer together.”
Amnesty International UK, however, warned that Newcastle’s trip could become “a glorified PR exercise for Mohammed bin Salman’s government”.
Chief executive officer Sacha Deshmukh said: “A training camp like this could easily turn into yet another PR opportunity for the Saudi authorities, who are clearly pursuing an aggressive policy of trying to sportswash their appalling human rights record.
“Under Mohammed bin Salman, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia has become increasingly repressive with government critics, women’s rights campaigners, Shia activists and human rights defenders harassed and jailed, often after blatantly unfair trials.
“The closed-door trial of Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged killers was little more than a whitewash and Saudi Arabia is implicated in an entire catalogue of crimes under international humanitarian law in the long-running conflict in Yemen.
“Newcastle players, the manager and all backroom staff ought to be prepared to speak out about human rights while in Saudi Arabia. Doing so will be a powerful sign of support for Saudi Arabia’s beleaguered human rights community.
“If the Newcastle training camp becomes a glorified PR exercise for Mohammed bin Salman’s government, it will prove once again that sportswashing human rights crimes is the name of the game here, not football.”
In the meantime, the Magpies will head for Elland Road with further new signings proving elusive, despite concerted efforts to land Sevilla defender Diego Carlos and Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard this week.
Howe said: It’s been a slightly frustrating week for us in the transfer market. We obviously know we’re against a deadline and we’re desperately trying, everyone connected with the club, desperately trying to improve the squad, working very hard behind the scenes.
“But it’s been a fruitless search this week.”