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Amnesty’s appeal to the Premier League over Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle

Newcastle United v West Ham United – Premier League – St James’ Park
(Image credit: Dave Rogers)

The Premier League has been urged to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record again after the settling of a commercial dispute appeared to clear the way for a Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle.

A Saudi ban on Premier League rights holder beIN SPORTS being able to broadcast in the country is understood to be being lifted after four and a half years, while a one billion dollar arbitration process between the broadcaster and the kingdom is also understood to have been settled.

The ban on beIN, plus alleged Saudi involvement in piracy of its content, are thought to have been key obstacles to any takeover of Newcastle happening.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is the chair of the Public Investment Fund looking to buy an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is the chair of the Public Investment Fund looking to buy an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle (Victoria Jones/PA)

However, Amnesty International has reminded the Premier League that the country’s record on human rights must also be a factor in deciding whether the takeover can go ahead.

The £300million-plus takeover would have meant the Saudi Public Investment Fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, taking an 80 per cent stake in the club.

“Instead of allowing those implicated in serious human rights violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets, we’ve urged the Premier League to change their owners’ and directors’ test to address human rights issues,” Amnesty UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement released to the PA news agency.

Deshmukh added: “Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football.

“Saudi ownership of St James’ Park was always as much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and his government as it was about football.

“Under Mohammed Bin Salman, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains dire – with government critics, women’s rights campaigners, Shia activists and human defenders still being harassed and jailed, often after blatantly unfair trials.

“The closed-door trial of Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged killers was widely perceived to be a part of a wider whitewash by the authorities, and Saudi Arabia is accused of a catalogue of crimes under international humanitarian law during the long conflict in Yemen.

“The phrase ‘human rights’ doesn’t even appear in the (Premier League’s) owners’ and directors’ test despite English football supposedly adhering to FIFA standards.

“We’ve sent the Premier League a suggested new human rights-compliant test and we reiterate our call on them to overhaul their standards on this.

“As with Formula One, elite boxing, golf or tennis, an association with top-tier football is a very attractive means of rebranding a country or person with a tarnished reputation. The Premier League needs to better understand the dynamic of sportswashing and tighten its ownership rules.”

The Saudi authorities are understood to be removing pirate websites when informed about them by beIN.

Saudi complicity in piracy has been a big concern for the Premier League. It wrote to the US government in February 2020 asking for the country to be kept on its watch list, saying the kingdom “remained a centre for piracy”.

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has instigated two separate legal processes against the Premier League

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has instigated two separate legal processes against the Premier League (Owen Humphreys/PA)

The takeover fell through in the summer of 2020.

The Premier League’s decision to identify the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a director with control of the club, and therefore subject to the league’s owners’ and directors’ test, became the subject of arbitration between the league and Newcastle’s current owner Mike Ashley. The hearing is due to start on January 3 next year.

A separate competition claim was lodged by St James Holdings Ltd (SJHL), which 100 per cent owns the club, earlier this year, alleging that the Premier League abused a dominant position by not considering the bid in a fair, objective and non-discriminatory manner.

The Competition Appeals Tribunal heard last week that the league had been “improperly influenced” by beIN and rival Premier League clubs in its consideration of the takeover.

Daniel Jowell QC, acting for St James Holdings Ltd, said the broadcaster and the clubs’ “active lobbying” of the league “distorted the Premier League’s fair and objective application of the rules”.

beIN is the legitimate Premier League rights holder in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and signed a new three-year deal last December understood to be on the same terms as the last agreement – around 500m US dollars (almost £368m).

Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said it is for the football authorities to legislate on the qualifications of prospective new owners based on the systems they already have in place.

Huddleston said: “This is a matter for football to decide, following the protocols they’ve got in place including proper implementation of the owners and directors test.

“One of the aspects of the fan-led review into football governance is all of these elements. I don’t want to prejudge what Tracey (Crouch) may recommend, we’ll be getting the full details going forward.

“We wouldn’t be having a review of football governance if we thought everything was perfect. But in any acquisition I would expect the Premier League to go through due process.

“I keep an eye on it. We have an ongoing dialogue with the Premier League about a whole range of things. But football needs to look after itself and this is an issue for football to resolve. At the end of the day it’s an acquisition made by private entities.”