Saudi takeover of Newcastle set to go ahead despite rights concerns

Saudi takeover of Newcastle set to go ahead despite rights concerns
Amnesty International has warned the English Premier League about a Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle over the kingdom's human rights record
3 min read
The deal to buy the club was worth a reported £300 million ($408 million) [Getty]

A Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle is set to get the green light from the Premier League despite warnings from Amnesty International on Thursday that the deal represents "sportswashing" of the Gulf kingdom's human rights record.

A consortium featuring Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), PCP Capital Partners and billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben struck a deal worth a reported £300 million ($408 million) to buy the club from unpopular owner Mike Ashley in April 2020.

However, the controversial takeover bid hit the rocks last year after an outcry from Qatar-based beIN Sports, a major television rights holder of the Premier League.

The broadcaster, which extended its rights to the English top-flight for the Middle East and North African region earlier this year until 2025 at a cost of $500 million, was banned by Saudi Arabia in 2017 at the start of a diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar, which ended in January.

Tensions between the states have eased significantly this year and Saudi's ban on beIN is set to be lifted, with Riyadh also seeking to settle Qatar's $1 billion arbitration claim over pirate broadcasts to Saudi audiences by the BeoutQ network.

The PIF, chaired by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, is reportedly set to take an 80 percent stake under the proposed deal.

The takeover could transform the Magpies' fortunes. Despite regular attendances of 50,000 at St. James' Park, Newcastle have not won a major trophy since 1969.

Current owner Mike Ashley has been deeply unpopular in his 13 years in charge, during which time the club have twice been relegated from the Premier League before bouncing back into English football's lucrative top flight.

But Amnesty has urged the Premier League to consider Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

"Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football," Amnesty International's UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia faced international condemnation following the brutal murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate three years ago.

In February, US intelligence released a report that accused MBS of approving the murder, an assessment strongly rejected by the Saudis.

Newcastle, currently managed by former Manchester United defender Steve Bruce, are without a win in their opening seven games of the Premier League season and sit second-bottom of the table.

"Under this ownership there has been no ambition, effectively no investment and no hope for a sporting entity that hasn't been a sporting entity. It's been there to survive and nothing more," a spokesman for the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) told AFP.

A recent poll by the NUST found 93.8 percent of fans were in favour of the takeover.

The transformation of Manchester City since a 2008 takeover from Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, is the template for Newcastle to follow.

Prior to Abu Dhabi's investment, City had not won a major trophy since 1976 but the English champions have now won five of the past 10 Premier League titles.

Huge investment into Newcastle would only intensify the battle at the top end of the Premier League for the title and lucrative Champions League places.

A competition tribunal case brought by Ashley ruled last month that the Premier League had been "improperly influenced" by other clubs when rejecting the takeover last year.