Over a year ago, Nick Cohen wrote a piece for The Guardian saying football fans should be asking hard questions about the money behind leading clubs and, on Human Rights Day, those questions still need asking.
Human Rights day is celebrated on the 10 December every year, “the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): a milestone document proclaiming the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being regardless of race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
With everything happening at Arsenal involving their on-the-pitch performances and off-the-pitch drama and intrigue, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that football is only a game.
But the money flowing into it comes with very real consequences for people we like to keep out of mind as well as out of sight.
Last season, when Arsenal were swanning around Dubai in the middle of it, I spoke to the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, who had this to say about that trip and why it was, and still is, an issue:
“As the Arsenal players enjoy the five-star treatment in Dubai, one should spare a thought for the migrant workers who built the city around them. Bussed in and out every day, they work in subhuman conditions without any rights, risking their lives in unsafe work environments for next to no pay.
“And as the players exchange pleasantries with UAE officials, one should also remember the political prisoners in the country, locked up for daring to speak out against the regime’s repression.
“Arsenal FC are of-course not responsible for these injustices. But by so openly associating with such a regime, the club is complicit in whitewashing their human rights abuses.
“It was for these reasons that FC Copenhagen suspended training sessions to Dubai last year after an outcry from their supporters. It is about time Arsenal fans speak out too and say “Not in our Name!”
Let’s look at Arsenal’s main sponsor, Emirates:
In 2004, Emirates signed a sponsorship deal with Arsenal, ahead of construction of the new stadium.
Since then, they’ve been the main shirt sponsor, as well as retaining naming rights for the club ground.
Maurice Flanagan founded Emirates Airline in 1985, and their headquarters are based in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is commonly at the centre of human rights controversies.
The Guardian report that many workers in Abu Dhabi are “subjected to conditions amounting to forced labour”. Employers allegedly confiscate workers’ passports and give them such poor wages they can’t pay off recruitment fees. That’s just one of many articles on the subject.
HRW (Human Rights Watch) write about similar exploitation of migrant construction workers in the country. They claim the government largely don’t enforce UAE Federal Labour Law protections. They also spoke to 60 workers who said their employers routinely withhold wages as “security” to stop workers “running away”.
Last summer, the United Arab Emirate’s leading human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, was jailed for 10 years for his ‘social media activity’.
Mansoor’s ‘crime’ was to use his social media accounts to publish ‘false information’ and ‘spread hatred and sectarianism’. In addition, he was also fined Dh1 million (approx. £204,000) for insulting the ‘status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols’, including its leaders.
The reality, however, is that Mansoor, who had, prior to his arrest, faced ‘repeated intimidation, harassment, physical assault, and death threats from the UAE authorities or their supporters,’ according to Amnesty International, merely expressed support for a fellow activist.
Osama al-Najjar was freed earlier this year after being held for five years by authorities despite completing his three-year sentence for tweeting about human rights abuses.
“Ahmed Mansoor is one of the few openly critical voices in the UAE, and his persecution is another nail in the coffin for human rights activism in the country,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director at the time he was sentenced.
“The decision to lock up Ahmed Mansoor for the next 10 years for simply sharing his opinion on social media is what causes the real damage to the UAE’s reputation and so-called ‘social harmony’, not Ahmed Mansoor’s peaceful activism.
“Ahmed is a prisoner of conscience who has been targeted, tried and sentenced for using Facebook and Twitter to share his thoughts. He should never have been charged in the first place and now he must be released immediately.”
Joe Odell, when he was with the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, told Daily Cannon, “This outrageous sentence is just the latest episode in the UAE’s continued clampdown on freedom of speech and expression. It is yet another clear indication that the regime who owns the Emirates brand have no regard for human rights – and a clear disdain for anyone who seeks to defend them.
“In reality, all that Ahmed Mansoor is guilty of is speaking up for the rights of the oppressed people throughout the region. It is about time that Arsenal FC Kick out the Emirates and say no to the UAE’s sport-washing.”
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean Emirates Airline are the same. It does raise questions over how they treat their workers, especially in the founding country, however.
An article by the Wall Street Journal in 2015 reported cabin crew complaints of longer hours and shortened layovers. Emirates reportedly asked staff to work more shifts, and they deferred employees’ annual leave allocation. The airline denied these claims.
Meanwhile, a blogger writing on the website DoNotFlyEmirates made a rather disturbing allegation that Emirates employees aren’t subject to Federal Labour Laws in the UAE. They support this claim with screenshots of emails from multiple employees at the company.
If that’s the case, workers in the country wouldn’t have any legal support if Emirates violate their rights. Considering HRW’s claim that the country commonly fails to enforce Labour Laws anyway, it’s problematic either way.
It’s hard to say with any certainty how much the above claims of exploitation of workers and rights violations really come into play with the airline.
However, “Emirates Airline is a company that is wholly owned by the government of Dubai,” Odell added.
“In recent years, the human rights situation in the UAE has deteriorated considerably with practices such as arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances becoming increasingly commonplace.
“Despite this, many in the UK continue to associate the UAE with luxury holidays and sporting events rather than human rights violations.
“In some respects, such deals enable the UAE authorities to ‘launder their reputation’ through cultural institutions in the UK such as Arsenal Football Club.”
There was much controversy over Arsenal’s sponsorship deal with Rwanda.
When you think Rwanda, you likely also think ‘genocide’. That’s what made it so easy to criticise that deal despite the complexities of the situation there.
It is a country that has serious issues when it comes to democracy, free speech and poverty, amongst other things. On the other hand, they are taking massive strides towards alleviating that poverty and are dragging women’s rights a few inches out of the middle ages.
In the UAE, they are doing none of that, yet because we think of the country as a utopia we all aspire to afford, mouths are kept shut.
It is a country that forbids criticism of its government, government officials, police and royal families and, in 2012, enacted a law to ensure online criticism was also punished.
It is illegal to be queer.
Women must receive permission from a male guardian to marry and it is illegal for them to marry non-Muslims.
They punish those accused of adultery with flogging, but only the unmarried ones. Married adulterers are stoned to death.
80 lashes for alcohol consumption. 100 lashes for pre-marital sex. Theft, drunk driving, kissing in public…lash, lash, lash.
They even have actual laws to dictate what sort of clothes you can wear.
But you know this, right?
I think we all do, but on some level choose to ignore it so maybe we shouldn’t on Human Rights Day.
While I knew most of the laws listed above, I don’t think I’d ever read them all together, and certainly not within the framework of our current political climate.
I’d was thinking, as I watched the Handmaid’s Tale, that it wouldn’t take much to get us from here to there. A little more Trump, Boris, austerity and the DUP and who knows what sort of dystopia we could find ourselves in.
But the Handmaid’s Tale is not the future. It is already here, now, playing out in the United Arab Emirates while we support our football team running around with their names emblazoned on our shirts.
William Gibson once said that “the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”
Arsenal being sponsored by ‘Fly Gilead’ might seem like an absurd notion, but is it really much different than ‘Fly Emirates’ given how they treat women and ‘gender traitors’?
On Human Rights Day, just take a minute to look at the Arsenal shirt you have folded in your drawer.
What was its real cost?