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Saudi Arabia attempts to salvage Newcastle United takeover with piracy crackdown

Controversial bid for English football club had been dealt a blow by a WTO ruling slamming apparent state-sponsored pirating of Qatari sports network
Newcastle United returned to action on Sunday with a 3-0 win over Sheffield United after a three-month break due to the coronavirus pandemic (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has pledged to take action against the illegal streaming of sporting events in an attempt to salvage the controversial Saudi-led takeover bid of Newcastle United.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) wrote to major sports bodies, including the Premier League, Uefa, Fifa and the International Olympic Committee, insisting it understood “the need to protect and respect intellectual property rights”. 

"Sporting rights are the lifeblood, which feed the future not just of elite clubs, but of the entire sporting pyramid,” SAFF president Yasser Hassan Almisehal wrote in correspondence seen by the BBC. 

"With our sporting ambition comes a responsibility to help [fight] piracy and as a nation we already have the rigorous governance framework to do just that."

In addition to SAFF’s statement, the Saudi Arabian Authority for Intellectual Property pledged to eliminate piracy and claimed to have shut down 231 illegal platforms. 

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Translation: Within the framework of the kingdom's efforts to reduce violations of rights, we aim to block 231 websites that violate intellectual property rules, with a view to shutting them down 

It comes just a week after a damning World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling found that “prominent Saudi nationals” promoted pirate network beoutQ, which illegally streamed content from Qatar's beIN Sports. 

The ruling made reference to several tweets promoting beoutQ, including from Saud al-Qahtani, who served as a close aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before being implicated in the murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The WTO found that Saudi Arabia "acted in a manner inconsistent" with international laws protecting intellectual property rights and urged the country to "bring its measures into conformity with its obligations". 

Despite the ruling, the Saudi foreign ministry spun it in a positive light, highlighting the line that there was “no copyright pirate found to be based in Saudi Arabia”.

BeIN sports presenter Richard Keys was keen to point out that beIN was the only place to watch football “legally”, in clear reference to the ongoing dispute. 

Lawyers from the Premier League have been reviewing the piracy issue for over two months as part of its owners’ and directors’ test, which looks into the background of parties seeking to purchase football clubs. 

In April, Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by MBS, launched a takeover deal for around $368m that would give it an 80 percent stake in Newcastle United. Many of the club's supporters responded by sharing MBS memes, adding Saudi flags to their Twitter profiles and, in some cases, joking about human rights abuses. 

In addition to illegal streaming concerns, the prospective takeover has also been criticised by human rights advocates for “sportswashing” Saudi human rights abuses. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of Khashoggi, wrote an emotional plea to Newcastle fans last month, urging them to “slam shut the door on this offensive deal”. 

Newcastle United returned to Premier League action on Sunday after a three-month break due to the coronavirus outbreak, beating Sheffield United 3-0.

Some fans on social media dubbed it the “Saudi derby”, in reference to Sheffield United being owned by Abdullah bin Musaad, a Saudi prince and cousin of MBS.

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