The docks are quiet now in South Shields, with just a few fishing boats bobbing in the harbor.
With the region’s industrial heyday now just a memory, the ships that once ferried coal through the port at the mouth of the River Tyne are long gone. But they left a living legacy. Yemeni sailors recruited from British-controlled Aden first arrived in northeast England in the 1860s, and they established what is now one of the oldest continuous Muslim communities in the U.K.
Yemenis often worked below decks as firemen, stoking the engines, and their willingness to take on hard, dangerous work won them popularity with employers. The streets of South Shields were swiftly lined with boarding houses for itinerant sailors. Some opened businesses and started families. Many fought for Britain in the world wars; the names of more than 100 Yemenis are recorded in the South Shields Book of Remembrance.
The community today is smaller than at its peak, as the decline of shipping forced sailors to seek new employment in Birmingham and Liverpool. But the population still numbers in the low thousands, now in their fifth and sixth generations in South Shields, deeply woven into the local fabric.
“It’s a great marriage because the bridges are built from both sides,” says Yusef Abdullah, a community worker whose father and grandfather were sailors, of relations between Yemenis and the wider population. “In other places the bridges are built from only one side and they always break.”
There is widespread pride in what Yemenis have contributed to the area and pride in representing it. Everyone here knows that Muhammad Ali’s marriage was blessed at South Shields’ Al Azhar mosque in 1977 and that the grandfather of superstar singer Jade Thirlwall hailed from Aden. When a young couple from the city was killed in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, members of the mosque attended their funeral.
Integration into local custom extends far enough that new arrivals soon pick up the distinctive “Geordie” accent and in many cases the local religion, Newcastle United Football Club.
The level of obsession with soccer in England is hard to exaggerate. Three-fourths of the population watched the final of Euro 2020. Before the pandemic, crowds at second division matches were larger than for the top tiers in Spain, France and Italy. But even by these standards, supporters of Newcastle are seen as uniquely passionate. Unlike Liverpool, Manchester and London, there is just one club in Newcastle, and it draws a devoted following wherever it plays, even during a long spell of spirit-crushing mediocrity under despised owner and sportswear tycoon Mike Ashley.
On Oct. 7, it was announced that Ashley’s 14-year reign was over. The club had been sold for the equivalent of about $400 million to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which the Premier League ruled to be distinct from the Saudi state, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role as chairperson.
Few Newcastle fans were reading the small print. Celebratory hordes massed around St. James’ Park, the iconic stadium that overlooks the city, some in Halloween-Arab costumes, others bearing Saudi flags. “We’ve got our club back,” supporters sang as joy and hope flooded back. Suddenly the richest club in the world, Newcastle would finally reclaim its place at the top of English soccer.
For the Yemenis of South Shields, a short metro ride along the River Tyne, the feelings are more complicated.
Hamid Ali, the Yemen-born secretary of Al Azhar mosque, is acutely aware of what the club means to Newcastle. He emphasizes that he has no criticism of supporters and strives to see the takeover from their perspective.
“I’m happy for Newcastle that somebody is investing in the club,” he says. “The city worships football, and it has a great fan base. But because of who the owners are, and the situation in Yemen, it leaves a sour taste.”
The mosque is registered as a charity, and Ali coordinates relief efforts for Yemenis struggling for survival under a Saudi blockade that deprives them of food and medicine. More than 2 million children are suffering from acute malnutrition, according to the World Food Program. The people of South Shields readily donate food and clothes that Ali believes are lifesaving.
Everyone I talk to with ties to Yemen has maintained them. Some make calls on shaky lines to family members trapped under siege. Others make hazardous trips via Oman, through mountains and checkpoints managed by unpredictable militias. Some have lost family to the fighting.
Nabil Saeed (a pseudonym) was living in the city of Ibb, south of Sanaa, when fighting broke out in 2015. He finds it painful to describe the experience.
“You don’t know if you’re going to live another day,” he recalls. “All you hear are blasts and bombs and shooting night and day. You could be asleep at 3 a.m. and you hear a bang from another rocket and the house shakes, everything breaks. You’re living in horror.”
Born and raised in Yemen, Saeed had spent two years working as a travel agent in Saudi Arabia before the war under the kafala system of “sponsorship” that human rights groups say is rife with exploitation and abuse.
“They treat you like they own you,” he says. “It was a bit like prison. As you walk in you hand over your passport. If you want to travel you have to let them know and they may or may not release your passport.”
Saeed returned from Saudi to Ibb with the intention of starting a business. But when the fighting started he was forced to “escape” for a second time to South Shields, via Oman and India, only to find his persecutors on his doorstep once again.
“When I see people wearing Saudi clothes and kind of supporting the Saudis, it just makes you feel that they don’t care,” he says.
Much of the local campaigning work on Yemen is focused on humanitarian relief, but Adnan Sayyadi is also engaged in political activism. He is the grandson of Mohammed Sayyadi, the sheikh of the city’s Al Azhar mosque and one of the first generation of permanent Yemeni settlers in South Shields who arrived in the 1890s, known as the “dictionary men” because Yemenis were known for speaking classical Arabic.
Sayyadi has attended and helped to organize demonstrations in London, the most recent demanding the reopening of Sanaa international airport, which he says is the only hope for visiting family he has not seen since before the war. A Newcastle supporter, he sees the takeover as a chance to educate.
“I think most of the fans don’t know anything about the war in Yemen, so this is a good opportunity for us,” he says. “We will go [to the stadium] with some banners to raise awareness of the forgotten war in Yemen and say the owner of this club is responsible. And we will be wearing Newcastle shirts.”
Sayyadi does not fault Newcastle fans for celebrating, but he does reserve scorn for the British government.
“Yemen is neglected by the politicians and we know why. Because they are selling arms to the Saudis. They want to make money, and they just sold us out,” he says.
The belief that the British government finessed the takeover is widespread in South Shields, and investigations have revealed less-than-transparent dialogue between the Foreign Office and both the Saudi regime and the Premier League. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia reportedly pressed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene at a time the deal was stalling.
There is also cynicism about the motives of Newcastle’s new owners. Hamid Ali hopes they will invest in the city and bring about regeneration, as with the Emirati owners of Manchester City, but he also believes it is a public relations exercise.
“It’s sportswashing the image of the government,” he says. “What interest do they have in Newcastle other than distracting people?”
The takeover of Newcastle is just the latest in a string of eye-catching Saudi investments in elite sport, which includes the first Grand Prix in Jeddah and a heavyweight boxing title fight. NGOs campaigning for Yemenis are dismayed at these deals, which they believe undermine efforts to pressure the regime to change its behavior.
“As long as Saudi Arabia is able to buy into sports, they feel immune to accountability,” says Aisha Jumaan, president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. “Unfortunately these institutions are allowing it.”
For all the lusty celebrations on Oct. 7 and opinion polls showing 97% of supporters in favor of the takeover, opinions among Newcastle fans are more equivocal.
But many ask why the buck must stop with them. The Saudi dictatorship is seen as a fit investor and partner for the British state. There were celebrations when Saudi Aramco committed about $1.1 billion to a chemical plant in nearby Teesside. Saudi Telecom has been a longtime partner of Manchester United. Manchester City’s owners are also implicated in war crimes in Yemen. The World Cup has been awarded to Qatar, which, according to Amnesty International, still exploits migrant workers through the kafala system for foreign laborers. Why should only Newcastle be denied the fruits of dictators’ wealth sloshing around the sport and wider economy?
Jonathan Drape-Comyn, a Newcastle fan and writer at independent fanzine The Mag, has written two theses on PIF investment. He argues that the charge of “sportswashing” is misplaced, as the Saudi regime is more interested in developing new markets, diversifying from petrochemicals and challenging Gulf rivals than public perceptions of their human rights record. But he agrees with criticism of the owners’ human rights record and supports action to challenge it. Fans of Brighton — a club with historic LGBT support — protested the criminalization of homosexuality in Saudi Arabia at a recent match, and Yemeni demonstrations could follow.
“I think that’s great,” Drape-Comyn says. “If Saudi Arabia owning a football club offers a chance for people to raise issues on live TV about human rights, that can only be a good thing. … I don’t think we should be knocking anyone fighting for a good cause just because of the team we support.”
Jamie Smith, a fellow writer at The Mag, is under no illusions about the Saudi regime. But he notes that it is not just the club but the city that has been run down, with record rates of child poverty.
“Saudi investment would mean job prospects and better futures for our kids,” says Smith. “Sheikh Mansour has regenerated about a quarter of Manchester.” He notes that new board member Jamie Reuben has already pledged to double donations to the local food bank.
A minority of fans are pursuing a path of militant opposition. For John Hird, the takeover is “a red line” and he has formed a small pressure group to lobby local politicians, persuade fellow supporters, and plan direct actions. One of his ideas is “a minute’s silence at St. James’ Park next time an LGBT+ person is beheaded in Saudi Arabia.”
Hird acknowledges the corruption of the wider sport but disagrees that fans are powerless, noting that supporters swiftly killed plans for a European Super league, and he believes fans of rival clubs can unify against dictatorships in soccer.
Such dilemmas are likely to become increasingly common. Newcastle is the third top-flight club in Europe to be acquired by a Gulf state — the other two have since dominated their domestic leagues — and most leading clubs have commercial partnerships with autocracies.
“I don’t think any league in Europe has necessary safeguarding policies in place apart from Germany, Sweden and some clubs where fan ownership limits this,” says Ronan Evain, executive director of Fans Europe, which represents supporter groups across the continent.
The old line about keeping politics and soccer separate no longer works, says Evain, because politics has so comprehensively invaded sports. He sees the role of his group as making fans aware of the issues so they can make informed decisions.
In some cases this means protesting against owners. At Paris Saint-Germain, some supporters abandoned the club after the Qatari takeover. Others such as United With Pride are taking the path of engagement.
Perhaps the most radical reaction is in Norway, where the group “Our Football” has proposed rules against partnerships with dictatorships. The proposals, including a ban on sponsorships with human-rights-abusing regimes and training in such countries, have been adopted by nine professional clubs. The Norwegian Football Association will vote on them next year. A proposal to boycott the World Cup in Qatar was narrowly defeated.
“We got help from Amnesty to define what’s acceptable,” says co-founder Lars Schou. “We have the definition that a regime that systematically and brutally violates human rights is the red line.”
Schou and co-founder Erlend Vagane are thrilled at the rapid progress that has been achieved in less than a year of campaigning, and their initiative has crossed national borders, with supporters pushing similar initiatives in Sweden and Germany.
“We are trying to salvage the football culture that we have,” says Schou. “We don’t want to be poster boys for PR campaigns for these regimes.”
The owners of Newcastle have yet to encounter such resistance. But for many of the Yemenis of Tyneside, a warm home is suddenly colder.