Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley officially placed the club up for sale back in October 2017. For many long frustrated fans this was a dream come true and after a few failed bids, Amanda Staveley, the Reuben brothers and the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PiF) are in proceedings to buy the club for a reported £300 million with Saudi Public Investment Fund reported to have an 80% stake in ownership. This is a developing story in the news and a variety of different views have been expressed in the press and over social media. If the takeover is successful, this could potentially mark the beginning of big changes for the club. This reflects the excitement of Newcastle United fans who are hoping for a similar success story to Manchester City. Negotiations and procedures are currently underway behind closed doors and a number of issues have arisen. 

The main issue in the news is coronavirus and this has of course brought its own issues with the takeover process. For example, due to staff being furloughed, the process is taking longer and the potential new owners are not allowed access to the stadium or its grounds because of the lockdown. Currently, the Premier League are in the process of their checks and tests. In particular, the Owners’ and Directors’ Test which is detailed in section F of the Premier League Handbook. This states criteria which would prohibit an individual from becoming an owner or director of a club. These include criminal convictions for a wide range of offences, a ban by a sporting or professional body or breaches of certain key football regulations, such as match-fixing. Section F.1.6 states that a person shall be disqualified from acting as a Director if, in the reasonable opinion of the Board, he has engaged in conduct outside the United Kingdom that would constitute an offence of the sort described in Rules F.1.5.2 or F.1.5.3, if such conduct has taken place in the UK, whether or not such conduct resulted in a conviction. These offences relate to any act which could reasonably be considered to be dishonest. 

BeIN have the exclusive rights to screen Premier League matches in the Middle East. They are a Qatar-based company which holds the rights to Premier League football in the Middle East and north Africa, in 2017 until it ceased broadcasting in August 2019. Pirate broadcaster beoutQ, which operates in Saudi Arabia, was illegally streaming content licensed to beIN SPORTS. Arabsat, a satellite network owned by the Saudi state, has denied having any connection or involvement to beoutQ, but the Premier League was highly critical of what it sees as a lack of action from the Saudi government to clamp down on the piracy. The Premier League wrote: ‘Despite repeated complaints by beIN and other rights holders, Saudi Arabia has never brought criminal action against beoutQ, or its Saudi facilitators’. BeIN have objected to the Newcastle United takeover. This could potentially also block the Newcastle United takeover under Rule F.1.6 if the board believe there had been intellectual property breaches. 

Human rights concerns have also hit the headlines and demonstrate the tensions between politics and sport. Amnesty International have written to the Chief Executive of the football Premier League, Richard Masters, raising their concerns about the purchase of Newcastle United football club. Amnesty International is asking Mr Masters to fully consider the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia as part of the Premier League’s Owners and Directors’ Test. The most likely ground to prevent the purchase of Newcastle United on the basis of human rights violations is Rule F.1.6 which would disqualify Saudi Public Investment Fund, if in the board’s reasonable opinion, they engaged in conduct which would be an offence if committed inside the UK. Amnesty International have repeatedly warned that Saudi Arabia under the control of the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salam, has embarked on a very active programme of ‘sportswashing’ and other efforts to drastically alter international perceptions of the country, partly to obscure Saudi Arabia’s extremely poor human rights record. Sportswashing is a term used to describe corrupt regimes who use sport and sports events to whitewash their image internationally. Saudi Arabia is the latest to be accused of using this practice with the potential purchase of Newcastle United.

Sportswashing – “The hosting of a sporting event, or owning of a team as a means for a country to improve its reputation, particularly if it has a poor record on human rights.”

Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has said that the UK government will not intervene in Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United. He said that it is up to the Premier League to apply their tests and checks. This appears to support the idea that sport is independent from political interference. However, this is not the first time that politics and sports have been connected. To only mention a couple, Amnesty International has put the spotlight on human rights when Argentina’s dictatorship used the 1978 World Cup for its own propaganda and when Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. 

The Premier League has responded to Amnesty International’s concerns and assured them that the necessary processes are being carried out with rigour. The takeover was expected to be completed by the 1st May, providing its new ownership passes the Owners’ and Directors’ test, which is designed to ensure parties “meet standards greater than that required under law so as to protect the reputation and image of the game”.  It appears that have been some delays and arguably the main complication could be BeIN’s objection due to piracy infringements. It will be interesting to see over the coming days whether an agreement will be made. In particular, it will be interesting to see with how much transparency the Premier League justify their application of the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, if at all. It will also be interesting to see whether the test will be subject to further scrutiny.

Fans of Newcastle United will be excited for the future if the takeover goes ahead. However, the strict FFP rules will prevent a sudden influx of money reflected in transfers. One thing Mike Ashley can be praised for is making a profit financially over the years which will benefit the club in terms of the FFP rules. There are no restrictions on investments to infrastructure and youth development. However, restrictions could well be slackened because of the financial problems European football clubs will have due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jaime Penaluna

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