The story behind the plane that flew over St James’ Park at Newcastle vs Arsenal
Ahead of every Premier League match on the weekend of King Charles III’s coronation, the freshly crowned head of England’s royal family was honoured with a rendition of the national anthem.
However, shortly before kick off between Newcastle United and Arsenal on Sunday, the spotlight was shifted onto a monarchy based 4,000 miles away but with long-reaching arms of influence.
At least that was the desired effect of the plane that flew across Sunday’s powder blue sky carrying the message: “Free all Saudi prisoners”.
Here’s everything you need to know about the politically-charged flyover asking uncomfortable questions about the Premier League’s moral compass.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased a majority share of Newcastle United Football Club in October 2021.
The sale quickly led to accusations that the Saudi Arabian state had taken control of Newcastle, one of England’s oldest and best-supported football clubs, to project a more favourable image of the Middle East giant which has come under scrutiny for its interpretation of human rights. The non-profit Amnesty International has described Saudi’s record as “atrocious”.
This distraction tactic is commonly known as ‘sports washing’ and multiple other club owners, including reigning Premier League champions Manchester City, have been accused of it.
However, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters dismissed any links between the Saudi Arabian state and Newcastle, insisting: “There are legally binding assurances that essentially the state will not be in charge of the club.”
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF, was appointed chairman of Newcastle after the takeover. Yet, Al-Rumayyan was described as “a sitting minister of the Saudi government” in a court document regarding a lawsuit involving the PGA Tour and Liv Golf in March 2023. If this description is correct, a member of the Saudi government would quite literally be in charge of Newcastle.
After demanding the freedom for “all Saudi prisoners”, the banner signed off with the Twitter handle for the SANAD Organisation, removing the need for extensive investigative skills.
According to their official website, the SANAD Organisation is “a human rights organisation – officially registered in the UK – that defends political and civil rights in Saudi Arabia, and monitors human rights violations and exposes them to human rights bodies and media, civil and political institutions around the world”.
The accompanying tweet which SANAD posted with footage of the plane underlined the call for a mass release and also demanded: “Stop sports washing”.
SANAD’s website has a list of 250 individuals they claim to have been unfairly detained across 22 prisons in Saudi Arabia. These are the ‘prisoners’ that the plane’s banner is referencing. They range from high-profile critics of the Saudi regime to human rights activists to journalists. Even family members who happened to be in the company of individuals when they were arrested have also reportedly been imprisoned.
By selecting such a high-profile Premier League match between two of the division’s top three which was televised across the globe and in the UK on Sky Sports, SANAD were trying to get as many eyeballs on their banner as possible with the aim of exposing a large audience to the moral conflict regarding Newcastle’s ownership.