Eddie Howe confirmed on Friday that Newcastle would travel to Saudi Arabia for a training camp despite a fresh warning from Amnesty International that the kingdom was “trying to sportswash their appalling human rights record”.
Relegation-threatened Newcastle, who are 80 per cent-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), will fly to the Middle East after their Premier League game at Leeds on Saturday.
Amanda Staveley’s consortium bought the club in October against a background of concern over the Gulf state’s human rights record and accusations of “sportswashing”.
But Howe, who was appointed as Newcastle boss the following month, insisted the focus would be entirely on football.
“It’s a football decision,” he told his pre-match press conference, confirming the trip, which had been widely reported.
“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 the PIF, of which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman and club chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan the governor, and the Saudi state in order for its takeover to be approved.
Asked whether he would be happy to meet the Crown Prince 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.”
He said Newcastle players and staff ought to be prepared to speak out about human rights while in Saudi Arabia.
“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,” he added.
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Newcastle, second from bottom of the Premier League after just one win in 20 matches, have brought in defender Kieran Trippier and forward Chris Wood this month but further new signings have proved elusive.
“It’s been a slightly frustrating week for us in the transfer market,” said Howe.
“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.”