Saudi Arabia’s controversial bid to buy Newcastle United Football Club could be approved very soon, ending an 18-month long saga that has seen many twists and turns, dragging regional politics, concerns over human rights abuses and media piracy into the picture.
A deal now seems imminent after the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is set to provide 80 per cent of funds for the £300 million ($407m) transaction, convinced the English Premier League (EPL) that it is a separate entity from the Saudi state. This is despite the fact that Mohammed Bin Salman is the chair of the PIF as well as the Crown Prince of the Kingdom.
At one point it looked as though there was no way back for the Saudi-funded consortium after it failed the EPL’s owners’ and directors’ test. There has also been scathing criticism by human rights groups over claims about Riyadh using the purchase of a top-flight English football club to “sportwash” its poor human rights record.
“Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportwash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football,” said Sacha Deshmukh, the CEO of Amnesty International UK. “Saudi ownership of St James’ Park [Newcastle’s stadium] was always as much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and his government as it was about football.”
However, concerns about Riyadh’s poor human rights record seem to have been far less of an issue than an ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. For three years from 2017, Qatar was under a strict blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. The dispute ended earlier this year, opening the way for a number of issues to be resolved.
Qatari-owned sports broadcaster beIN Sports, which the Saudis banned as part of the blockade, objected strongly to the takeover bid with a letter to EPL bosses warning of the “dangers” of allowing the acquisition to go ahead. beIN has a deal worth $617 million with 20 English clubs in the top tier, making it English football’s biggest overseas broadcast partner.
The company argued that the Saudis had violated EPL rules and should therefore be blocked from buying Newcastle United. The government in Doha claimed that Saudi Arabia was behind a pirate Arabic-language television network — beoutQ — which was accused of illegally screening EPL football matches across the Middle East and North Africa.Riyadh is now reported to have resolved its issues with beIN Sports. Together with the league’s apparent satisfaction that the PIF is independent of the Saudi government, two of the main stumbling blocks to the purchase of Newcastle United FC appear to have been removed.
While most fans of the club will be happy with what an injection of funds will do for Newcastle United’ prospects, lifelong supporter Yvonne Ridley leafleted the crowd before the first home game of the season to draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record. Journalist Ridley highlighted the imprisonment with neither charge nor trial of her friend and mentor Dr Ahmed Moustapha, 80, as an example of the abuses inflicted upon innocent people by the regime in Riyadh.