Eddie Howe again declined to address Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record as he confirmed he would take his struggling Newcastle squad to the Gulf kingdom after Saturday’s game at Leeds.
Saudi-owned Newcastle are due to fly to Jeddah on Sunday for a week-long warm-weather training camp on the Red Sea coast, where thermometers reached 30C on Friday. Although Howe revealed they were likely to play a friendly he refused to say whether he would meet Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler. “I don’t know any of those details at the moment,” he said.
The political temperature has been raised significantly by human rights issues and the Saudi regime’s alleged involvement in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 but Howe maintained he was concentrating purely on football and Newcastle’s attempt “to survive in the Premier League”.
Newcastle’s manager, whose side sit second bottom after winning only one game, said: “It’s a football decision. We’re doing it for the benefit of the players 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 and the players will be very well looked after.
“There will be no distraction from my side. It’s about the training and making sure the players are focused on our next game [against Everton on 8 February]. We’re just doing it in a different environment to bring the players closer together. We’ll try to do some good work and come back as a united squad.
“Going away is vitally important. A lot of the Covid protocols you have around the training ground [in England] are encouraging isolation, quite rightly to protect everybody. But it doesn’t help you foster the team spirit and the togetherness that we’re going to need in the battle to stay in the division. It’s important to encourage that unity so going away together is a great idea.”
Saudi’s Public Investment Fund holds an 80% in Newcastle and Amnesty International is concerned about the trip. “It could turn into another PR opportunity for the Saudi authorities who are trying to sportswash their appalling human rights record,” a spokesperson said.
Howe, meanwhile, conceded he had experienced a frustrating week in the transfer market as he endeavours to reinforce his squad, with moves for the Sevilla centre-half Diego Carlos and the Manchester United forward Jesse Lingard faltering.
“We are desperately trying to improve the squad,” he said. “But it has been a fruitless search this week.”