Calls to probe Saudi Arabia’s Heathrow bid amid human rights concerns

The Government has been urged to probe Saudi Arabia’s swoop for Heathrow as campaigners attack the move as ‘whitewashing’ the country’s dubious human rights record.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, whose vast assets include Newcastle United FC, this week agreed to pay Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial £1billion for a 10 per cent stake in the west London airport.

It comes as Ferrovial offloaded its 25 per cent holding in Heathrow, 17 years after first buying into the group.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is taking 10 per cent, while French private equity firm Ardian is buying the other 15 per cent stake.

The Qatar Investment Authority is also a top stakeholder in Heathrow, with a 20 per cent holding.

Concerns: Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund agreed to pay Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial £1bn for a 10% stake in the west London airport

The PIF, controlled by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, is estimated to have more than £550billion in assets.

But campaigners have raised alarm bells over the swoop from PIF, which recently invested in Newcastle United and car maker Aston Martin.

Katie Fallon, advocacy manager at Campaign Against Arms Trade, said the investment was designed to ‘whitewash the regime’s appalling human rights record’.

She said: ‘They target high-profile family friendly brands.’

Peter Frankental, economic affairs director at Amnesty International, said: ‘We would like to have seen Heathrow’s owners conduct proper due diligence. It’s surely the least the public would expect from the owners of this iconic UK transport hub.’

The Government has refused to comment on whether it will intervene. But it has the power to block deals on national security concerns.

After a rocky pandemic, Heathrow has largely bounced back. It flew 59.4m passengers in the first nine months of 2023, up 34.4 per cent from 2022. In September passengers topped pre-pandemic levels for the first time.

But Ferrovial has warned that regulatory changes to lower landing charges – fees paid by airlines to use airports – would hit its portfolio.

Ferrovial said it remained committed to its airport investments.

It owns half of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton airports, has 49 per cent of Terminal 1 at New York’s JFK airport and a 60 per cent investment in Dalaman airport in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia has hosted lucrative sports events over the past few years, including the LIV golf series last year, which merged with PGA Tour and DP World Tour this June.

This has led to some accusations of ‘sportswashing’ – where sport is used to divert attention from societal issues.

Bin Salman told Fox News: ‘If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1 per cent, we’ll continue doing sportswashing, I don’t care about that.’