North East Devolution and Levelling Up

£1bn Saudi investment in Tees Valley. But what about human rights?

Tees Valley’s green energy sector got a £1bn boost today – thanks to a company in Saudi Arabia, which is at the centre of a human rights controversy after executing 81 people at the weekend.

Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen did not mention the executions or the country’s human rights record in a statement welcoming the investment at Billingham as ‘absolutely fantastic news’.

But he did respond when the issue was raised by Teesside Labour MPs Andy McDonald and Alex Cunningham.

During a visit by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Saudi Arabia today the Kingdom’s alfanar group would confirm the investment in its Lighthouse Green Fuels Project, according to a statement on Tees Valley Combined Authority’s (TVCA) website.

It was expected to create more than 700 jobs during construction which is due to start next year and 240 full-time jobs when fully operational, said the statement.

Alfanar group is aiming to be the first company to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from waste at scale in the UK, and the fuel generated by the Billingham plant will have the potential to produce 80% less greenhouse gas than its fossil fuel equivalent, it added.

The firm was previously awarded £2,417,500 by the UK Government as part of its Green Fuels, Green Skies competition to take forward the project, which will convert household and commercial waste into 180m litres of SAF and liquid hydrocarbon naptha, it said.

Mayor Houchen said: ‘I’ve been working closely with alfanar for a long time now and this absolutely fantastic news further cements our region as the global go-to place to develop ground-breaking green energy technology – delivering the cleaner, safer and healthier jobs of the future.

‘Alfanar’s commitment to the region and its workers is fantastic to see, with hundreds of high-quality, well-paid jobs set to come for people right across Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool as it plays its part in helping us become a clean energy powerhouse.

‘It also ties into our ambitions to make Teesside Airport the UK’s first hydrogen-ready airport, and an early adopter of these sustainable aviation fuels. Hydrogen-powered vehicles and a refuelling station are on the ground now and projects right across our area from the likes of bp, Kellas Midstream and Northern Gas Networks are showing how we’re capitalising on the UK’s low carbon ambitions.

‘Critically, at a point where we need to be thinking outside of the box to cut down on traditional jet fuel emissions to keep our aviation sector soaring, this investment and innovative project will help us become a pioneer in the aviation fuels of the future.’

Andy McDonald, MP for Middlesbrough, told TeessideLive that Mr johnson was turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. He said the UK could not divorce its industrial strategy and policies around energy security from human rights – and it was insulting in the extreme to suggest that Teessiders don’t care about human rights.

He said: ‘Of course, we want to realise our green industrial revolution ambitions and deliver good, well-paid, secure and unionised jobs. But that does not mean turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

‘We cannot forget Yemen or the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, and, in a week when 81 men have been brutally beheaded in Saudi Arabia, we need to hear much more about the extent to which this company is involved with the Saudi royal family.’

Alex Cunningham, Labour MP for Stockton North, said: ‘We need to ensure that in seeking to cut our dependence on Russian oil we do not simply switch our dependency to another regime with an appalling human rights record. Sadly, the Prime Minister appears to be doing just that with Saudi Arabia.

‘North Sea oil and gas companies have made huge profits because of global prices, with bosses saying they have more money than they know what to do with. We should be taxing that and using it to bring energy prices down for people, instead of dealing with a regime that only a few days ago beheaded 80 men.’

Mayor Houchen told TeessideLive that Saudi firms had already been operating on Teesside for many years. He said: ‘Because of our region’s world leading chemicals and processing sector, Teesside has been able to secure significant investment historically from Saudi Arabia.

‘Take SABIC – their recent £850m investment announced last October will create and safeguard 1,000 jobs. SABIC has operated on Teesside for many years already. Now alfanar is investing huge amounts of money into a new plant to create sustainable aviation fuel from waste, delivering more jobs for local workers.’