October 8 – The sky might be the limit on the field for Newcastle United following the takeover by a Saudi-led consortium but the club could soon become a pariah off it – the one everyone loves to hate.
Just as the eye-watering moneybags deal was announced, so it prompted an immediate backlash from human rights organisations over Saudi Arabia’s alleged ‘sportswashing’ – the term that describes using the prestige of top-tier sport as a distraction from human rights violations.
Amnesty International called on the Premier League to look again at its criteria for approving takeovers.
“Instead of allowing those implicated in serious human rights violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets, we’ve urged the Premier League to change their owners’ and directors’ test to address human rights issues,” said Amnesty UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh.
“The phrase ‘human rights’ doesn’t even appear in the owners’ and directors’ test despite English football supposedly adhering to FIFA standards. 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.
“We can understand that this will be seen as a great day by many Newcastle United fans. But it’s also a very worrying day for anyone who cares about the ownership of English football clubs and whether these great clubs are being used to sportswash human rights abuse.
“In our assessment, this deal was always more about sportswashing than it was about football, with Saudi Arabia’s aggressive move into sport as a vehicle for image-management and PR plain for all to see.
“This will be an extremely bitter blow for human rights defenders and others suffering persecution in Saudi Arabia who will be well aware that this takeover is partly about diverting attention from their plight.
“Our call on the Premier League remains the same – it urgently needs to strengthen its owners’ and directors’ rules to make them human rights-compliant and prevent those implicated in serious human rights violations from buying their way into English football.”
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) is set to provide 80% of funds for the £305 million deal and would be the majority owner. The Premier League allowed the takeover only after receiving assurances that the Saudi state would not be running affairs at Newcastle.
However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is also the chair of PIF and, crucially, was accused of being implicit in the widely publicised murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, reportedly pleaded with the Premier League not to allow the move to go through but it was finally agreed after Saudi Arabia settled a piracy dispute with Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sports, which owns rights to show Premier League matches in the Middle East and paid £450 million to renew its rights for a further three years.
“I am very disappointed,” Cengiz was quoted as saying. “What I’ve been doing since his murder is seeking justice for Jamal every day, every chance that I found or every place I can go and ask more.
“Then suddenly, I saw the news and people were talking about the takeover and I said ‘please, do not do that, please be respectful to yourself’.”
“It seems like they [Newcastle fans] don’t care about what happened to Jamal, they just care about the financial future,” added Cengiz, speaking to BBC Radio.
“I want to remind them that there is something more important than money, that there is something more important than the financial situation of this club.
“There are really more expensive values that we have and we need in our life always. You should send the message to them that they cannot buy any English team because of this crime – it is the clear message that every English person should send them. We have to remind them of what they did to Jamal, because no-one was held accountable.”
Financier Amanda Staveley, part of the takeover consortium, insisted PIF was a totally “autonomous, commercially-driven investment fund.”
“I do hear [the concerns], we want all fans to talk to us, so anybody that has any issues they know we’re here and they need to come talk to us,” she was quoted as saying. “We’ll take them through our plan and introduce everybody to the PIF team.”
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