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Newcastle takeover in doubt as WTO rules Saudi Arabia behind beoutQ piracy: Report

Guardian reports that the Premier league, which received WTO's unpublished report earlier this month, made submissions against the Saudi-funded takeover
Newcastle United's Brazilian striker Joelinton controls the ball during the English FA Cup fifth round football match on 3 March (AFP/File photo)

The planned takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi-backed consortium that involves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) appears to be in serious doubt after the World Trade Organisation ruled that the country is responsible for a TV network that broadcasts pirated sporting events. 

In an unreleased 130-page report seen by the Guardian, the WTO firmly established that Saudi authorities are behind the illegal streaming service beoutQ, an accusation the kingdom has long denied. 

The trade organisation's report is set to be made public around mid-June but has already questioned Saudi Arabia's ability to go forward with its $365m  takeover. 

The kingdom's Public Investment Fund - chaired by MBS - has plans to take an 80 percent stake in the club, but to do so would require the fund to pass the Premier League's owners' and directors' test. 

That test can be failed if owners were thought to be in violation of UK law, even if it was committed abroad. 

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Since the report establishes a clear legal link between beoutQ and the Saudi state, the viability of the takeover has come into question, the Guardian reported. 

The beoutQ network was launched in 2017 and illegally streams content from Qatar's beIN Sports media group, which holds exclusive rights to broadcast international tournaments to the Middle East and North Africa region. 

BeoutQ works through the set up of illegal receiver boxes that are widely available across the region which allow the streaming of major broadcasters.

The WTO report revealed that the Premier League, which received an early copy of the report, has submitted legal complaints against Saudi Arabia over the issue. 

While Fifa (football's world governing body), the Premier League, La Liga and others had previously attempted to take legal action against beoutQ for its illegal streaming of their matches, they had been unable to secure a local firm willing to take on the copyright case, the Guardian said. 

The WTO, the highest judicial body that could take on such a case, has now ruled that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the network, and therefore in breach of international law. 

Saudi Arabia and two other minority buyers - PCP Capital Partners and the property developers David and Simon Reuben - which make up the other 20 percent stake in the club, contacted the Premier League for approval nearly two months ago. The process usually takes around 30 days.

Ongoing international concern 

Saudi Arabia's alleged ownership of beoutQ has for years caused problems for the kingdom.  

Earlier this month, the US - for the second year in a row - put Saudi Arabia on its "Priority Watch List" for failing to protect and enforce intellectual property rights around the world.

In a report released by the US Trade Representative (USTR), beoutQ was found to be the kingdom's main piracy offender. 

In January, the European Commission slammed Saudi Arabia for "causing considerable harm to EU businesses" through beoutQ, as well Arabsat, a Royadh-based satellite connectivity provider. 

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Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has continued to deny responsibility for the broadcast of the pirated content, suggesting instead that the piracy was operating out of Cuba and Colombia; both countries have also denied the accusations. 

The British government has also taken on the issue. Last year Liam Fox, then secretary of state at the Department for International Trade, in a letter to a colleague, said that he had contacted directly Saudi Arabia's minister for commerce and investment about the issue of Saudi piracy. 

At the time, he said that Philip Hammond, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had also raised beoutQ with ministers in Saudi Arabia. 

In October 2018, beIN launched a compensation claim worth $1bn against the illegal network while Qatar filed an action at the WTO. 

For their part, rights group Amnesty International has also called for Saudi Arabia to be blocked from taking over Newcastle United over the government's "sweeping crackdown on human rights".