Saudi Arabia and Newcastle further intertwined after divisive friendly
Newcastle is typically a monochrome image of black and white jerseys on football match days, but on Friday night the city was painted green.
That's because the Green Falcons - the national team of Saudi Arabia - were in town for the first of two friendly matches against Costa Rica and South Korea at St James's Park, Newcastle United football club's ground.
Talal al-Kanani, an undergraduate at Leeds University, was one of many Saudi students in attendance.
"The Saudi Society at the university took care of transportation," he told Middle East Eye. "There's about 20 of us. We all came together to support our national team."
Ahmed Sagaf, a fifth-year student, travelled with 85 of his Saudi compatriots at the University of Manchester. He even donned a curly haired green wig for the occasion.
"I'm hoping for a 3-0 win," he said optimistically before the game.
It wasn't just Saudi students in green - hundreds of local residents turned up wearing Newcastle United's controversial green away kit, which is thought to be inspired by the colours of Saudi Arabia.
That sight characterised that this was no ordinary friendly match, and the choice of venue was no coincidence.
Saudi Arabia have only ever played in the UK once, in a friendly match against England in 1998.
'I'm glad that we're getting the correct publicity that we deserve'
- Talal al-Kanani, UK-based Saudi student
And St James's Park has only played host to two kinds of international matches: England games, and fixtures in major tournaments (Euro 96 and the Olympics in 2012).
But that has now changed since Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, led a consortium which bought Newcastle United two years ago in a $380m deal.
Friday's match was an early return on investment, and a clear continuation of the growing ties between a football-loving English city and an oil-rich Gulf kingdom.
'We respect Saudi Arabia now'
One of those Newcastle fans wearing the Saudi-inspired away kit was Charlie, who was proudly supporting the Green Falcons.
Asked why he backed Saudi Arabia tonight, he told MEE: "Because they put money into our club to help [us] get [UEFA] Champions League football.
"We respect Saudi Arabia now. We love them. They've provided us with so much."
Since the takeover in October 2021, Newcastle's Saudi-led owners have spent over $400m on transfers and propelled the team to their first top four finish in the English Premier League in 20 years.
The team will play in Europe's most elite competition, the Champions League, as a result.
On and off the pitch, the ties between Saudi Arabia and Newcastle are growing, and fans are embracing it.
Adam, 22, travelled to Riyadh in December to watch Newcastle United play Saudi club Al-Hilal.
"It was great. Probably one of the safest countries I've ever been to," he told MEE.
"I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as it gets made out in social media," Adam adds, explaining that contrary to what he had seen online, he was freely able to walk around the Saudi capital wearing shorts.
Leeds student Kanani hopes that events like today will help to dispel what he considers to be misconceptions about his country.
"Everything is kind of portrayed not quite correctly. So I'm glad that we're getting the correct publicity that we deserve," he said.
Fans hold protest
Not all Newcastle fans were as happy as Adam and Charlie about the unprecedented friendlies at St James's Park.
A small protest took place an hour before kick off led by Newcastle United Fans Against Sportwashing, a group of supporters opposed to Saudi involvement in their club.
They held up pictures of Saudi teenagers threatened with the death penalty.
"The Saudi regime is using our ground… and city as a giant billboard to deflect attention away from their many and gross human rights abuses," protest organiser John Hird tells MEE.
Hird has supported Newcastle since the 1960s and is among the few fans who remember when they last won a trophy in 1969.
"The Saudi sportswashing international which is taking place tonight is a bridge too far," he says.
Dan, 44, had been a Newcastle United season ticket holder for three decades, but stopped attending games following the takeover.
"I couldn't stay in the stadium and enjoy the football anymore. I don't think any state should own a football club," he told MEE.
'The Saudi regime is using our ground… and city as a giant billboard to deflect attention away from their many and gross human rights abuses'
- John Hird, Newcastle United fan
Andrew Page, 38, also gave up his season ticket last year, which he had continuously renewed since the age of six.
"I haven't got any problem with any Saudi Arabians who want to support the Saudi Arabia team tonight," Page tells MEE. "But that's not why this game is taking place here.
"This is about moving us closer towards the regime," he adds. "The propaganda machine which started two years ago since the takeover, it's a continuation of that."
Earlier this week, Saudi activist Lina al-Hathloul, sister of former high-profile detainee Loujain al-Hathloul, held a meeting in Newcastle in which she urged the city's football fans to speak out on Saudi human rights abuses.
The protest was peaceful, and despite heavy police presence, went ahead with little commotion.
Costa Rica wins
Match tickets were priced at just £5 for adults and £3 for children, but it failed to draw big crowds as three of the four stands in the stadium were completely empty.
The official attendance was marked as 20,000, but that is likely to have been an estimate. Curiously, stewards at the ground allowed fans to go into the stadium without having to scan their tickets.
It was the first game in charge for Saudi Arabia's new coach Roberto Mancini, who guided Italy to glory at Euro 2020 in his previous post.
The veteran manager will have his work cut out with Saudi Arabia. Despite having the vast majority of fans on their side and playing well in spells, they slumped to a 3-1 defeat to a potent Costa Rica side.
The Green Falcons' players now play alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar in the star studded Saudi Pro League, which has undergone an extraordinary summer of transfer activity.
But Friday's performance indicates it will take time for Mancini to see the positive effects of his players mixing with the biggest stars in football.
After the game, there was no press conference with the manager and players, following a media blackout reportedly imposed by the Saudi government.
Some speculated the blackout could have been to avoid Mancini being asked about the protest and human rights concerns.
As St James's Park turns green again on Tuesday for the sequel against South Korea, the Saudi effect on Newcastle will continue to divide and intrigue.