Tory minister hails Saudi takeover of Newcastle United - despite 'shock' at 81 executions

A Conservative minister has claimed the Government is “shocked” by the executions of 81 prisoners in Saudi Arabia at the weekend - but hailed the recent takeover of Newcastle United by the nation’s sovereign wealth fund as “a sign the UK remains a great place to invest”.

Foreign Office Minister Amanda Milling made the remarks during a Parliamentary debate on the killings, which comes ahead of a reported planned trip to Saudi Arabia by Boris Johnson in the coming days to discuss increasing oil and gas supplies following UK sanctions on Russia.

During a debate on the executions and their impact on the Prime Minister’s forthcoming trip, Labour MP Mike Amesbury questioned whether the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund is a “proper and fit for purpose owner of Newcastle United?”

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Ms Milling said: “The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is a significant investor, having invested billions in the UK and other western markets, it operates across a range of sectors.

Newcastle United fans celebrated the takeover of their club by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF).Newcastle United fans celebrated the takeover of their club by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Newcastle United fans celebrated the takeover of their club by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF).

“We welcome the purchase of Newcastle United, a sign that the UK remains a great place to invest.”

The country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – of which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is chairman – owns an 80 per cent stake of the consortium which owns the football club.

The PIF has given legally binding assurances, which have been accepted by the Premier League, that the Saudi state will have no control over Newcastle.

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Labour MP Clive Efford said: “It may be one thing for the morally bankrupt Premier League to accept money from Saudi Arabia, but for the UK Government to turn round and say it welcomes its investment is another thing.

“Our frank talking to Saudi Arabia has amounted to nothing more than diplomatic finger-wagging and has created no change whatsoever in their attitudes.”

Ms Milling replied: “The relationship with Saudi is of great importance, covering a range of national security and economic interests, but it is because of that relationship that we are able to have frank conversations about human rights.”

She said the takeover of the club had been a commercial matter for the Premier League.

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The debate saw MPs call for Mr Johnson to cancel his visit to Saudi Arabia.

The Prime Minister is preparing to visit Riyadh and meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the hope his kingdom can raise its production of oil and gas to make up for a reduced reliance on Russia.

But Tory former minister Crispin Blunt warned Mr Johnson will face “exquisite difficulties” given he will arrive just days after the executions, and he pressed Mr Johnson to make clear Britain’s concerns.

Mr Blunt said the execution of 81 men in a day – reported by the state-run Saudi Press Agency on March 12 – is “of profound concern” to the Commons and the country.

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He told MPs: “This represents a new low for human rights and criminal justice in the kingdom, coming only a week after the Crown Prince had promised to modernise the Saudi justice system.”

SNP frontbencher Alyn Smith added Mr Johnson’s visit “should not go ahead and there should be a consequence”.

Liberal Democrat former minister Alistair Carmichael warned: “Actions do speak louder than words.

“If the Prime Minister goes in the next few days to Saudi Arabia, we will be sending a very clear signal that no matter what we say, we’re not really bothered about this sort of thing.”

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Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling replied: “Given our relationship with Saudi Arabia, we are able to have those frank conversations about human rights. We are opposed to the death penalty in all countries under all circumstances.”

Labour MP Nadia Whittome, who represents Nottingham East, said: “In light of the executions on Saturday, will the Prime Minister cancel his planned visit and will this Government do what it should have done long ago and end arms sales to the Saudi regime?”

Conservative Julian Lewis called on the Government to confirm that “in seeking to lessen our dependence upon one source of oil and gas, we do not end up creating a source dependency on another unreliable and sometimes hostile regime”.

Ms Milling said: “It’s important that all international partners work together to ensure the stability of energy markets.”

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Green MP Caroline Lucas asked: “Does she not see any contradiction between rightly ending dependence on Putin’s Russia for fossil fuels, but then seeking to replace them by going cap in hand to another murderous tyrant who executes his own people and to whom we sell arms that are being used to kill civilians in Yemen?”

Earlier, Ms Milling told MPs: “We are shocked by the execution of 81 individuals on March 13.

“The United Kingdom strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances as a matter of principle.

“The UK ambassador has already raised the UK’s strong concerns with the Saudi national security adviser and their vice-foreign minister.”

Ms Milling said the UK will seek further clarification on the cases, adding: “No aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights.”