Saudi bid for English Premier League soccer team has support of fans, opposition of human rights advocates

The reported effort by the state-run Saudi Public Investment Fund to buy the Newcastle United football club has prompted an opposition campaign by human rights organizations.

al-monitor A general view outside St James' Park on March 14, 2020, as the Premier League is suspended due to the number of coronavirus cases growing around the world. Photo by REUTERS/Scott Heppell.

Apr 29, 2020

It’s been more than six weeks since a soccer ball was last kicked in the English Premier League (EPL). Liverpool FC and its star Egyptian striker and folk hero Mo Salah had been within a whisker of securing the championship title when the gates to stadiums were locked following the novel coronavirus outbreak. With the terraces empty, and millions of football fans around the world lamenting the loss of their beloved game, passions have been redirected to competition off the pitch.

There have been lively discussions about millionaire soccer stars taking pay cuts if clubs are furloughing lesser-paid staff and about abandoning competition altogether or playing matches without fans in attendance. The most-heated arguments, however, have revolved around an effort to buy one of the league’s most famous clubs. 

The Saudi Public Investment Fund is widely reported to be the majority partner in a consortium that has launched a $380 million bid to acquire Newcastle United. The consortium is led by PCP Capital Partners, headed by the British financier Amanda Staveley and her husband, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, an Iranian. The prospect of an EPL club in the hands of a Saudi state-run enterprise chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has caused an outcry among human rights supporters.

Middle Eastern ownership of football clubs is nothing new in the West. In Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have, respectively, secured what have become two of the richest and most successful soccer clubs worldwide. Farhad Moshiri, a British Iranian businessman, owns a majority share in Everton, and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad of Saudi Arabia personally owns Sheffield United. The prospect of a state-owned Saudi buyer appears to be in a different league, however.

The deal to purchase Newcastle United needs the approval of the EPL, which must decide whether owners pass its “fit and proper persons” test for club ownership. In this regard, Amnesty UK has appealed to the EPL to be cautious. In a letter from Director Kate Allen, the human rights organization warned, “Unless the Premier League pauses and looks seriously at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia it risks becoming a patsy — a willing dupe of those trying to sportswash their abysmal human rights record.”

At an April 23 parliamentary committee meeting, Scottish MP John Nicolson urged the UK government to intervene and remarked, “Given the Saudi Arabian record of kidnapping, torture and other human rights violations, not least the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, how can the prince possibly be considered a fit and proper person?” 

Crown Prince Mohammed has denied ordering the killing of the Saudi journalist in October 2018, but says he nonetheless takes full responsibility for it. British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, who oversees sport, told the committee that he is content to leave the matter to the EPL.

“It’s a company backed by the Sovereign Wealth Fund, it’s not him [Mohammed] personally buying it,” Dowden said. “We have good foreign relations with Saudi Arabia but also we’ve never been shy in raising all those human rights abuses that you’ve talked about and will continue to do so.”

The Qatar-based broadcaster BeIN Sports, which owns exclusive rights to distribution of EPL matches in the region, also issued a call to block the purchase. It claims that Saudi authorities have turned a blind eye to the illegal streaming of games by a rogue network called beoutQ. A commissioned report released last September by international football authorities, including FIFA and the EPL, concluded that beoutQ regularly uses the Riyadh-based Arabsat satellite system for the unauthorized broadcasts.

A joint statement in September 2019 by football's governing authorities and the leagues asserted, “We have been frustrated in our attempts to pursue a formal copyright claim against beoutQ in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The Saudi government has consistently denied any involvement in piracy and all claims that beoutQ is based in the kingdom.

Almost forgotten amid the business, legal and geopolitical aspects of the saga are the fans. “Don’t carry coals to Newcastle” is an expression dating to the 19th century, when Newcastle was a powerhouse of British coal production. In other words it means don't try to sell something to people who already have it in abundance. In the case of Newcastle United, an abundance of success is not a complaint familiar to its fans.

Newcastle is a one-club city of passionate football supporters whose team is a sleeping giant. Founded in 1892, Newcastle United reached the pinnacle of success in the 1950s, when the black-and-white shirts lifted the FA Cup Trophy three times in five years. Such glory remains confined to the era of black-and-white television, leaving subsequent generations of fans with a team that has seldom fulfilled their dreams. Nonetheless, some 52,000 fans regularly pack St. James’ Park for home games, and the mood of the city on Saturday nights hangs upon the result.

Relegated to a position of powerless bystanders in the ownership decision, Newcastle fans have nonetheless made their feelings known. Most of them are desperate for a buyer who shares their ambition after 13 years of unpopular ownership by Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust in mid-April reported that among some 3,400 fans surveyed in 35 countries, 96.7% support the team's sale.

Several respondents expressed anguish over balancing their concern for human rights with the achingly persuasive prospect of a winning team. The vast majority, however, is prepared to put such worries aside. They argue that it’s not up to a football club to carry the moral responsibility of a nation that has welcomed Saudi royal visitors and conducts millions of dollars of trade with the kingdom.

The EPL is expected to soon make a decision on the club's ownership, but in the absence of a consensus to resume the football season during the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no immediate impact on the pitch. Newcastle fans will have to wait a little while longer before their club can acquire a Mo Salah of its own. 

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