A potential Saudi Arabian-led 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 run a Premier League 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 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.
But will Saudi Arabia’s list of alleged abuses cause the Premier League to block the deal?
What is the owners’ and directors’ test?
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.”
The Premier League handbook includes a list of disqualifying events which range from a person holding “the power to influence another club” to any unspent convictions or being in charge of a business that went bust.
The numbers of owners who have failed this test publicly are relatively few.
But, in the same interview, Scudamore said the number 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 which they feel are grounds for the Saudi bid to be disqualified:
- F1.2: The power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chair of the PIF, to determine or influence another club, in this case Sheffield United, which is owned by another Saudi, Prince Abdullah.
- F.1.6: The Crown Prince’s conduct, which would constitute an offence in the United Kingdom regardless of whether it resulted in a conviction.
Human rights organisations have accused Bin Salman of several crimes and western intelligence agencies claim there is evidence linking the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 to the Crown Prince – something he denies.
Saudi authorities blamed a “rogue operation” for Khashoggi’s death.
Mohammed bin Salman is asked: “Did you order the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?”
McGeehan told BBC Sport the “United States senate unanimously decided that Bin Salman was responsible” for Khashoggi’s death.
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”.
“So not only he is 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,” McGeehan says.
“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 Sheikh Mansour, who effectively runs Abu Dhabi and controls Man City so it’s not just Sheffield United.”
Manchester City declined to comment, but have privately dismissed the claims.
The Premier League has also been asked by Qatar broadcaster beIN Sports to consider “the direct role of Saudi Arabia” in beoutQ illegally showing matches in the Middle East region, 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”.
That could prove to be a crucial consideration as to whether the test is passed, 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 added: “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 the Saudi wealth fund for a response to Fair/Square’s concerns.
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.
Human rights groups wrote to the Premier League when former Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra took over as owner of Manchester City in 2007, accusing him of being a “human rights abuser of the worst kind”.
Thaksin’s lawyer, Noppadol Pattama, told BBC Sport at the time the allegations were completely unfounded.
“The civil and human rights charges against him have never been proven,” said Noppadol. “My client deserves to be treated as an innocent man, until proven guilty.
“So far there hasn’t been any solid evidence against him.”
The key point in the Premier League’s eyes was he had not been found guilty of those allegations when he took charge. After he left the club, he was charged with corruption, denying any wrongdoing.
City’s current Abu Dhabi owners, who replaced Thaksin in 2008, have also been accused of whitewashing their country’s human rights record. They passed the test with no apparent problems.
A source familiar with previous decisions told BBC Sport the Newcastle takeover is likely to go through because the Premier League cannot act as moral arbiter on owners. It will only base its verdict on infringements that have been proven.
It will be difficult to reach that threshold with many of the allegations levelled at Saudi Arabia, and the case against the Newcastle takeover is not helped by the UK government’s trade deals with the country.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the takeover was a matter for the Premier League, so a government intervention is unlikely.
Replying to Fair/Square’s letter, Masters said he could not comment on the ongoing process of the prospective takeover, but added: “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 that 96.7% were in favour of the Saudi-led takeover.
McGeehan said: “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.
“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 appears to be nothing.