Even as the £305 million ($415 million) takeover of English Premier League soccer side Newcastle United was being completed late yesterday (7 October), with the Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund putting up 80 per cent of funds for the deal, human rights advocate Amnesty International was calling the deal “a clear attempt at sportswashing.”
The deal, which has been worked on for over 18 months, saw a consortium involving the PIF, as well as the PCP Capital Partners firm led by Amanda Staveley (who is publicly fronting the takeover) and the RB Sports & Media investment group led by David and Simon Reuben, buy out Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s previous owner for the last 14 years and the owner of the Sports Direct leisurewear stores.
Despite the fact Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, is officially listed as chair of the PIF (which has assets of at least £250 billion) and that the body’s governor Yasir al-Rumayyan will be Newcastle's new non-executive chair, the Premier League was persuaded after lengthy discussions that the Saudi state would not be involved in the day-to-day running of the club, and the consortium subsequently passed the league’s owners’ and directors’ test.
Indeed, in its statement announcing the takeover, the league said they had received “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi government and state would not directly control the club.
However, Amnesty has suggested the aforementioned test for owners and directors is no longer fit for purpose, with its UK head, Sacha Deshmukh, saying: “Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sports wash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight soccer.
“We’ve urged the Premier League to change their owners’ and directors’ test to address human rights issues.
“We’ve sent the Premier League a suggested new human rights-compliant test and we reiterate our call on them to overhaul their standards on this…
“This is a bitter blow for human rights defenders."
Deshmukh added: “The Premier League needs to better understand the dynamic of sport washing and tighten its ownership rules.”
The Premier League had said in its own statement, on these same issues: “The legal disputes concerned which entities would own and have the ability to control the club … All parties have agreed the settlement is necessary to end the long uncertainty for fans over the club’s ownership.
“The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United FC.”
Staveley, meanwhile, speaking to media after the deal was confirmed, said that her firm took concerns over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record “very seriously”, but insisted that their partner “is not the Saudi state, it’s PIF.”
She said the acquisition was not a case of sportswashing, and that: “This is very much about the PIF’s investment into a fantastic soccer team and we look forward to growing the club.
“I’m obviously aware of the comments that have been made and it’s something we take seriously and keenly.
“It’s not sportswashing at all.”
The takeover had been at least 18 months in the making, with PIF and Staveley first entering into talks with Ashley in the first few months of 2020.
PIF had initially backed off last summer, after failing to address a series of concerns that the Premier League had brought to light. Those included both the level of the KSA state involvement and the presence in the kingdom (with the support from the government) of a pirate broadcaster (beoutQ) that had been relentlessly stealing the broadcasts of Premier League games from the rights-holder across the Middle East, Qatar-based BeIN Sports.
However, both those issues have now been addressed. The Premier League, as stated above, has said it now has legal assurances that the KSA government will not be directly involved, while the Saudi government earlier this week lifted a long-standing ban on BeIN operating in the country, and has also agreed to crack down on digital pirate networks operating within its borders in future.
UK media reported yesterday that the agreement between the Premier League and the consortium regarding the owners’ and directors’ test was agreed before news then came out that Saudi Arabia would be changing its stance on BeIN and would once again allow the broadcaster (which recently paid over £400 million for Premier League rights across the region and North Africa) to operate in the Kingdom.
The disagreements between the Saudi state and BeIN stem from a major, and wider, geopolitical dispute between the Kingdom and Qatar, which began in 2017.
Ashley, who made a profit of around £170 million on the sale, having bought Newcastle for £134 million in 2007, had put the club up for sale twice before – in September 2008 and then again in October 2017.
In terms of the make-up of the new board, meanwhile, David Reuben’s son Jamie will sit on it, as will Staveley and al-Rumayyan.