A potential Saudi Arabian-backed takeover of Newcastle United has come under intense scrutiny, particularly around the country’s human rights record, but will that matter to the Premier League?
We are likely to find out in the next two weeks as it carries out the necessary checks to see if a country accused of murdering a journalist, and of executing 184 people in 2019, is deemed ‘fit and proper’ to take a majority share in an English top-flight football club.
That phrase has been omitted from what is now called the owners’ and directors’ test, which measures whether owners meet standards greater than those required by law in order to protect football’s reputation and image.
Some human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have said the Saudis – who are set to finance 80% of a £300m takeover at Newcastle through their Public Investment Fund – fall well short of those standards.
“Passing this deal would set a dangerous precedent,” says Nicholas McGeehan of Fair/Square – an NGO which raises human rights issues.
But will Saudi Arabia’s list of alleged abuses cause the Premier League to block the deal?
What is the owners’ and directors’ test?
As former Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore told the BBC in 2017: “The owners’ and directors’ test is based on two things fundamentally – have you committed any of the crimes that say you cannot possibly own a club? And then it’s down to the finances.”
In the Premier League handbook, there is a list of disqualifying events which range from a person holding “the power to influence another club” through to any unspent convictions or being in charge of a business that went bust.
The number of owners who have failed this test publicly is relatively low. But, in the same interview, Scudamore said it ran into “at least the tens, probably into the 20s”.
“It should be of some reassurance to fans how deep and how hard we work on this,” he added. “It’s very extensive. We have very deep and resourceful intelligence networks.”
What are the issues with Newcastle’s takeover?
Fair/Square wrote to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and Football Association CEO Mark Bullingham last week to underline two parts of the test it alleges are grounds for the Saudi bid to disqualified.
Under point F.1.2 of the test, it claims Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – de facto leader of Saudi Arabia and chair of the PIF – could use his power to determine or influence another club, in this case Sheffield United, which is owned by another Saudi, Prince Abdullah.
And under F.1.6, it alleges the Crown Prince’s conduct would constitute an offence in the United Kingdom regardless of whether it resulted in a conviction.
Fair/Square and Amnesty International have accused the Saudi regime of torturing activists and murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Western intelligence agencies claim the Crown Prince ordered Khashoggi’s death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 – something he denies. Saudi authorities blamed a “rogue operation”.
McGeehan told BBC Sport: “The US senate unanimously decided that Bin Salman was responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, and a UN special rapporteur who did a six-month investigation said it was a pre-mediated extra-judicial killing and pointed to Bin Salman’s role in that.”
As for the power to influence Sheffield United, McGeehan says that between 2017 and 2019 Bin Salman detained “scores of senior Saudis, including princes” in a hotel and “forced them to turn over billions of dollars in assets in return for their freedom”.
The Saudi attorney general said this was part of an anti-corruption drive.
But McGeehan added: “Not only is Bin Salman in a position of extreme control over Prince Abdullah, but we know for a well-documented fact that he has used his power ruthlessly to effectively shake down other princes, irrespective of his family ties to them.
“Given the relationship between the two, you could imagine a situation where other clubs, whose fortune or fate might depend on the outcome of a match between Sheffield United and Newcastle United, would have sound concern.
“There are any number of scenarios in which he could exert his influence and the clause in the test is there to prevent that. There is also the issue with Abu Dhabi’s ownership of Manchester City. We know Bin Salman is a close ally of Mohammed bin Zayed, who effectively runs Abu Dhabi and controls Manchester City so it’s not just Sheffield United.”
Manchester City declined to comment, but have privately dismissed the claims. Sheffield United have also been contacted by the BBC.
Qatar broadcaster beIN Sports has also accused the Saudi Arabian government of facilitating the piracy of Premier League football rights in the Middle East through broadcaster beoutQ, although there is a long-running diplomatic row between the two countries.
Saudi broadcaster Arabsat has always denied that beoutQ uses its frequencies to broadcast illegally and has accused beIN of being behind “defamation attempts and misleading campaigns”.
But those claims could prove significant, especially as the Premier League wrote to the US government in February urging it to keep Saudi Arabia on a watch list because it said the country “remained a centre for piracy”.
McGeehan said: “I can understand why Newcastle fans might not be up to speed with what goes on in Saudi Arabia, but that is the Premier League’s duty.”
BBC Sport has contacted Saudi Arabia’s ministry of media and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom for a response to Fair/Square’s allegations.
The PIF declined to comment, but it is understood their position is that, although Bin Salman is the chair of the organisation, he is not involved with its day-to-day running, so the accusations against him are not relevant to the Newcastle bid.
Will the Saudis pass the test?
If that sounds like a compelling case for failure, it might be worth considering some of those who have passed the owners’ and directors’ test in recent history.
When Thaksin Shinawatra – formerly Thailand’s prime minister – took over as owner of Manchester City in 2007, not only was he facing corruption charges – that he denied – but human rights groups wrote to the Premier League, accusing him of being a “human rights abuser of the worst kind”.
Thaksin’s lawyer, Noppadol Pattama, told BBC Sport at the time that the allegations were completely unfounded, adding: “So far there hasn’t been any solid evidence against him.”
That was the key point in the Premier League’s eyes. A year later Thaksin sold his controlling stake in the club shortly before being found guilty of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison.
Businessman Carson Yeung took control of Birmingham City in 2009 and passed the top-flight’s owners’ and directors’ test, but stood down because of money-laundering allegations for which he was jailed in 2014. At the time he took over, however, there were no charges.
A source familiar with previous decisions has told BBC Sport the Newcastle takeover is likely to go through because the Premier League cannot act as moral arbiter on owners.
Sports lawyer Nick de Marco added: “Unless there is a clear and obvious link between an individual and an offence and that individual has been convicted in some court of law or tribunal then it’s very difficult to see how they could fail the test.
“At this stage, given what’s in the public domain, I can’t see an obvious route for turning it down even though a lot of people may want that to happen.”
The case against the Newcastle takeover is not helped by the UK government’s trade deals with Saudi Arabia.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the takeover was a matter for the Premier League, so a government intervention is unlikely.
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Replying to Fair/Square’s letter, Masters said: “I can assure you that these processes go beyond those required by UK company law and they are applied with equal rigour to every prospective purchase of a Premier League club.”
‘Newcastle will be used as a vehicle to prevent justice’
The test of Newcastle fans appears to have been passed already.
A poll of 3,410 Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust members found 96.7% were in favour of the Saudi-led takeover.
But McGeehan warns: “It’s fair enough for Newcastle fans to want the money and success but their desire for that doesn’t trump the need for the victims to get justice and accountability. The club will be used as a vehicle to prevent that happening via sportswashing.
“We need a serious debate about football club ownership. There are unscrupulous owners, and that’s a problem, but governments have no place running these social institutions.
“Passing this deal would set a dangerous precedent, and what’s to stop another Saudi prince buying another English club?”
As long as they pass the owners’ and directors’ test, which remains contested, the answer to that question appears to be ‘very little’.
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