Stalled Newcastle United takeover exposes limits of what Saudi money can buy

Stalled Newcastle United takeover exposes limits of what Saudi money can buy
Comment: The WTO's objection to Mohammed bin Salman's Newcastle United deal won't fix Saudi Arabia's human rights record, but it's a step in the right direction, writes Courtney Freer.
4 min read
28 May, 2020
The WTO ruling could endanger Saudi Arabia's takeover of Newcastle United [Getty/TNA illustration]
Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF) recently funded a takeover of Newcastle United, granting it an 80 percent stake in the team.

The deal sparked controversy due to Saudi Arabia's terrible human rights record, particularly under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Amnesty International last month wrote a letter to the head of the Premier League Richard Masters asking him to take into account Saudi Arabia's human rights violations when considering the PIF's stake in Newcastle United.

Still, the deal could ultimately be threatened not by concerns about Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses, but instead by a forthcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling. 

According to The Guardian, the WTO's 113-page report, due to be published in mid-June, is said to confirm that the Saudi government was responsible for the creation of the cleverly named channel beoutQ - a pirated rival network to the Qatar-based beIN Sports that airs football matches from the major international leagues. BeoutQ was started in 2017 after the blockade against Qatar led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, and has spurred complaints since that time.

Indeed, the Premier League is said to have submitted legal filings against Saudi Arabia for illegally streaming matches; Fifa, La Liga, and Uefa have also sought to take legal action against the network but failed to find a local team to take on the case for copyright infringement. As a result, the issue was referred to the WTO. 

The WTO report provides a legal link between the creation of beoutQ and the potential owners of Newcastle United

The WTO's ruling could endanger PIF's takeover of Newcastle, since the Premier League's test for owners and directors is failed if an owner or director has committed a crime overseas that is also illegal in the UK or has given misleading information.

Because MbS is chairman of the PIF, as well as de facto ruler as crown prince, the WTO report provides a legal link between the creation of beoutQ and potential owners of Newcastle United, although the Saudis continue to deny this connection. 

Yousef al-Obaidly, the CEO of beIN Media Group, which has exclusive rights to Premier League matches in the Middle East and North Africa, meanwhile has written to Premier League chiefs asking them to block the takeover due to Saudi Arabia's alleged "theft of clubs' intellectual property and commercial rights for nearly three years." BeIN has claimed a $1 billion loss in revenue over six months since subscriptions and advertising have decreased due to the availability of the pirated channel. 

To be sure, the Premier League's potential block on the PIF's majority ownership of Newcastle United would not mean that the Saudi government is being held to account for its actions, particularly its arrest of prisoners of conscience and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but it is at least symbolically important - showing the limits of what Saudi money can buy.

Read more: What will be left of Saudi Vision 2030, post-coronavirus?

The situation also potentially provides an opportunity for the Premier League to require the Saudis to change some of their policies by making acceptance of the ownership conditional on, for instance, shutting down beoutQ.

Greater attention to beoutQ also sheds light on how deeply entrenched the GCC rift has become as it approaches its three-year anniversary. The fact that the division has become institutionalised even when it comes to sports channels is indicative of how difficult the rift will be to resolve in the short to medium term.

Further, the depth of this rift means that the WTO's ruling - particularly if it blocks or delays the PIF's stake in Newcastle United - will likely be framed by Saudi Arabia as being pro-Qatar in favouring the legitimate beIN Sports, and chastising Saudi involvement in the pirated beoutQ.

And with the beIN contract as the broadcaster for the Premier League in the Middle East and North Africa set to expire in 2022 but expected to be renewed, this provides more potential for intra-GCC competition over sports broadcasting. The WTO's ruling therefore has consequences far beyond those for Newcastle United.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.