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English football rules won't stop Saudi Arabia's Newcastle United bid

Proposed takeover would give Saudi investment fund headed by Mohammed bin Salman an 80 percent stake in club
Newcastle United fans pictured before the club's match at Brighton in April 2019 (Reuters)

A Saudi takeover of a leading English football club looks set to go ahead because Premier League rules prohibit minor criminal offenders from ownership, but do not require any scrutiny of those accused of being war criminals, human rights abusers or murderers.

The takeover of Newcastle United FC is being planned by a consortium largely financed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. 

With the fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the bid has been condemned by human rights organisations, who describe it as a “sportswashing” operation to launder the Saudi government’s reputation.

However, the consortium is reported to be confident that the Premier League’s rules will not prove to be any obstacle to its £310 million purchase of the club.

Those rules prohibit anyone from becoming an owner or director of a Premier League club if they have been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty; if they have a conviction for football hooliganism; for ticket touting, or scalping; or for “dishonestly receiving a [television] programme broadcast from within the UK with intent to avoid payment”.

However, the rules do not prevent serious criminals or human rights abusers from becoming owners or directors of English football clubs.

Since bin Salman led a coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, Saudi forces have been accused by a United Nations human rights panel of committing war crimes – as have all other parties to the conflict.

Saudi forces have bombed schools, mosques, hospitals and markets, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.

Bin Salman became de facto ruler of the kingdom two years later, since when serious human rights abuses have continued unabated.

Muslim scholars have been executed, women’s rights activists have been detained and allegedly tortured and freedom of expression, association and belief continue to be denied.

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The crown prince has also been accused of being directly responsible for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist with the Washington Post and Middle East Eye.

Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Turkish eavesdropping devices established that his body was then dismembered, but his remains have never been found.

Bin Salman has accepted responsibility for the murder, saying it happened “on my watch”. He has denied ordering it. However, the CIA has concluded that he was to blame, while the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings says he should be investigated for the crime.

Newcastle United is one of England’s oldest and best-supported football clubs. It has won the top-flight league on four occasions, and the FA Cup six times.

Many fans appear to be supportive of the takeover, believing that the current owner, Mike Ashley, a retail tycoon, has not given the club sufficient support.

The local newspaper has even suggested that the takeover could “reignite the soul of the club and lead to a new rush of optimism”.

At least a handful are concerned by the move, however.

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The consortium is reported to have been put together by British businesswoman Amanda Staveley, who helped to orchestrate the purchase of Manchester City Football Club by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi in 2008.

The takeover would be one of several investments that the Saudi Public Investment Fund is reported to be making after the value of its assets was hit by the coronavirus crisis.

The Premier League told Middle East Eye that it would not disclose whether it was considering the consortium’s bid under its owners’ and directors’ test.

However, the league did not dispute that its test allowed people alleged to have been involved in war crimes, human rights abuses and murder to take over English football clubs, while barring people convicted of minor offences.

'Blatant whitewash'

Felix Jakens, Amnesty International’s UK head of campaigns, said the takeover was a blatant act of “sportswashing”.

“We need to see it for what it is: Saudi Arabia attempting to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football as a PR tool to distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record,” he said.

“Under the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi human rights defenders have been subjected to a brutal crackdown, with numerous peaceful activists jailed - including Loujain al-Hathloul and other brave women’s rights campaigners.

“There’s been a blatant whitewash over Jamal Khashoggi’s grisly murder, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen has a disgraceful record of launching indiscriminate attacks on homes and hospitals.

“All businesses need to safeguard against any possible complicity in human rights violations, and football is no different.

“Whether or not this deal goes ahead, we’d call on Newcastle United staff and fans to familiarise themselves with the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about it.”

Allan Saint-Maximin
Newcastle's Allan Saint-Maximin celebrates after scoring against Southampton in the Premier League in March 2020 (Reuters)

The Saudi Public Investment Fund will own an 80 percent stake in the club if the deal goes ahead, according to UK media reports. Yasir al-Rumayyan, an ally of bin Salman and chairman of Saudi oil giant Aramco, is said to have been lined up to be the club’s chairman.

Staveley will also control a stake in the club, along with Reuben Brothers, a company controlled by British billionaires Simon and David Reuben. It's been reported that David’s son Jamie is also likely to be appointed to the board.

A spokesman for Reuben Brothers declined to comment on Amnesty’s criticisms on the grounds that the deal was not yet completed.

Staveley’s Dubai-based company PCP Capital Partners could not be contacted.

Newcastle United FC did not respond to requests for a comment.