The British government’s special envoy to Saudi Arabia has caused anger among MPs and human rights activists by saying concerns about the kingdom’s purchase of Newcastle United Football Club were just “noise” created by people jealous of the investment.
The club was instantly ranked the richest in the world after the Premier League approved the £300m deal last month, with the state’s wealth fund now owning an 80% stake. But critics of the deal raised concerns over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and the kingdom’s imprisonment of dissenters.
Now a video has emerged of Ken Costa, the banker and Tory donor who was made a special representative to the kingdom three years ago, dismissing the concerns at a conference last month. Asked whether jealousy was behind them, he replied: “Yes.”
“It’s a competitive world,” he told an interviewer from Arab News. “You see a strong player coming into your market, what do you want to do? You want to create noise. A lot of it is noise, a lot of it is trying to find reasons why [the takeover] couldn’t happen, but it has happened.”
Costa, who was part of the British delegation at a Riyadh investment forum, said that the move by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund would mean significant investment in the north-east. “There is a very real possibility of welcoming Saudi investment into a part of the UK to create jobs to be able to be working in and around something where people can really identify with, which is football and the football club. It’s a positive thing for the fans and for football generally,” he said, adding that Boris Johnson was committed to building a relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“I have been the special representative of the prime minister for the last three years and, coming to the end of that, I have been able to see the extraordinary depth of the commitment between the two countries,” he said.
His comments drew criticism. Felix Jakens, head of priority campaigns at Amnesty International UK, said: “It is disappointing that someone in Ken Costa’s position would describe the serious issues being raised over the Newcastle takeover as mere noise.
“Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains dire – with government critics, women’s rights campaigners, Shia activists and human rights defenders being harassed and jailed, often after patently unfair trials,” he said. “Both the UN and US intelligence services have said they believe he approved the operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“In addition to all this, Saudi Arabia is accused of a catalogue of crimes under international humanitarian law during the long-running conflict in Yemen. There is now huge disquiet over the cynical use of English football to sportswash human rights abuse. If this is just noise, it would be interesting to know what constitutes a bona fide concern for Mr Costa.”
Layla Moran, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said the remarks were “tone deaf”. “The Saudi Arabian government has one of the worst human rights records in the world: brushing that off as just noise is outrageous,” she said. “This issue goes much deeper than Newcastle United. Anyone who cares about the government acting with integrity should be highly concerned by the way in which Boris Johnson and his colleagues are cosying up to the Saudi regime. There needs to be lessons learned from the Newcastle deal but sadly our government and its shameful record has no leg to stand on.”
Costa did not respond to requests for comment. The government said it had not had a role at any point in the takeover of Newcastle United. “This has been a commercial matter for the Premier League to assess under its owners’ and directors’ test,” a spokesperson said.
While the government has maintained it played no part in the takeover, it has already emerged that Prince Mohammed warned Johnson in a text message that UK-Saudi Arabian relations would be damaged if the British government failed to intervene to “correct” the Premier League’s initial “wrong” decision to block the takeover.