From poacher to gamekeeper: Is Newcastle deal back on with Saudi promise to stop stealing?

By Andrew Warshaw

July 22 – In a key move that could break the deadlock over the prospective £300 million takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi-led consortium, Saudi Arabia has announced a crackdown on illegally streaming sports events.

In what appears to be a significant climbdown over its policy hitherto in the face of a highly critical World Trade Organisation report, it was reported at the weekend that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) acknowledged it “understands the need to protect and respect intellectual property rights”.

Last week FIFA and UEFA welcomed the WTO’s recent judgement that Saudi Arabia had facilitated broadcast piracy by the Saudi-based BeoutQ operation.

The 125-page WTO report, while not mentioning Newcastle per se, concluded there is evidence that beoutQ was promoted and supported by the Saudi government, and ruled that the Saudis were in breach of their obligations under international law as a result.

The WTO determined that Saudi Arabia “acted inconsistently with WTO rules on the protection of intellectual property (IP) by failing to take actions against a pirate commercial-scale broadcaster operating openly in the country.”

The report came in response to a complaint by Qatar in 2018 that Saudi Arabia had committed “wilful copyright piracy on a commercial scale”. Rights to most of the major football competitions in the Middle East and North Africa are the property of beIN Sports, owned by Saudi’s regional rival Qatar which has paid over a billion dollars in rights fees to football.

An investment consortium fronted by Saudi Arabia’s controversial Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is bidding to turn Newcastle, among English football’s most fanatically supported sleeping giants, into one of the richest clubs in the world. The consortium comprises the  Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the billionaire British-based property developers Reuben brothers plus financier Amanda Staveley who brokered the deal.

According to the BBC, SAFF president Yasser Hassan Almisehal has written to UEFA and other sporting bodies in which he stated: “Sporting rights are the lifeblood, which feed the future not just of elite clubs, but of the entire sporting pyramid.

“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.”

The bid has been met with fierce criticism not only from BeiN but also from Amnesty International over the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

The Premier League now has to establish, via their owners’ and directors’ test, whether the piracy issue can be linked to any of the owners or directors involved in the take-over. Reports suggest the deal is now on the verge of being approved.

In a statement on government social media channels,  Saudi officials say they have conducted an “online inspection campaign” designed to stop “websites and platforms that violates intellectual property laws including sites broadcast from outside the Kingdom”.

“SAIP [Saudi Authority For Intellectual Property] recently monitored, examined, and analysed 231 websites that violates Intellectual property law to prevent it from being browsed from the Kingdom.

“SAIP has also detected websites that are selling subscriptions for encrypted TV channels through softwares or illicit streaming devices (ISDs) to break barriers for the purpose of displaying materials in illegal ways.”

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