English Premier League bosses have been forced to deny claims that the British government has put pressure on them to approve Saudi Arabia's £300 million ($373) takeover of Newcastle United Football Club, as scrutiny of the controversial purchase intensifies.
EPL Chief Executive Richard Masters rejected the claim during a hearing before the British Parliament's digital, culture, media and sports committee. Tough questions were posed to bosses in English football's top tier, including some surrounding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
"You could find Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman passing the fit and proper test and taking over a club," said Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson. "How humiliating for you, surely."
Nicolson raised the issue of Khashoggi's murder by agents of the Saudi government alleged by some — including the CIA — to have been authorised by the Crown Prince. "I just can't imagine a situation where someone who is implicated in murder is allowed to take over an English club," continued the MP as he questioned the Premier League's moral authority.
Masters declined to comment on the killing of Khashoggi, but he rejected Nicholson's claim that the Premier League had been put under "enormous pressure" by the British government to look favourably on the takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. "I'm not aware of government placing any pressure on the Premier League one way or another in relation to any takeover," the Premier League official said, according to a report in the Financial Times.
In April, Britain's Minister of Culture, Oliver Dowden, was also forced to reject similar accusations. He insisted at the time that the takeover bid will be decided upon by the Premier League and not the government.
Several objections have been raised against the deal, notably by Qatar. The gas rich Gulf State, which has been subjected to a Saudi-led blockade since 2017, accused Riyadh of violating English Premier League rules by illegally streaming matches the rights to which had been bought by the Doha-based sports broadcaster beIN from the League in a deal worth $617 million.
The World Trade Organisation concluded that Riyadh had "infringed" international trade agreements through its ties to beoutQ, the Arabic language TV network accused of streaming the matches illegally. The Premier League has also admitted that the Saudis were behind the illegal screenings across the Middle East and North Africa.
The all-cash club purchase is undergoing the Premier League's "owners' and directors' test", which determines whether a buyer is allowed to go ahead with an acquisition. The test normally takes three weeks. This one has been going on for more than three months. Masters said that he "would like the process to conclude shortly" during yesterday's parliamentary scrutiny, but it's still not clear how long that actually means.