UK government unlikely to intervene in Saudi takeover of Newcastle

Amnesty International has already warned the Premier League of risks of takeover

A controversial Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United is nearing completion. File photograph: Getty Images

A controversial Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United is nearing completion. File photograph: Getty Images

 

The UK government has given a strong indication it will not intervene in the controversial £300m (€343m) Saudi Arabia-funded takeover of Newcastle United and emphasised the UK’s good relations with the kingdom.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, was questioned on the issue by the SNP MP John Nicolson during a meeting of the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee on Wednesday but said it was a “matter for the Premier League” rather than Downing Street.

Dowden, though, proved rather less hands-off in advising the Premier League to offer free-to-air broadcast of live matches once football finally returns, inevitably behind closed doors. “I have said to the Premier League it wouldn’t send the best signal if the public at large couldn’t have access to it,” he told the committee, before revealing that a ruling body heavily reliant on income from broadcasting deals is “considering” the issue.

Nicolson quizzed Dowden on the suitability of the new owners and their relationship to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which is set to purchase an 80 per cent stake of the club, is, in effect, a sovereign wealth fund and Amnesty International has already warned the Premier League it “risks becoming a patsy” if it does not consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record before approving the takeover.

Like Amnesty, Nicolson suspects this is part of a wider “sports-washing” exercise as the Premier League considers Newcastle’s prospective owners and subjects them to its mandatory owners’ and directors’ test. Although this perhaps unexpectedly diverse consortium also includes the British billionaires David and Simon Reuben and the Yorkshire-born financier Amanda Staveley, Nicolson remains concerned about the central Saudi element and the possibility of Newcastle falling into what he described as Prince Mohammed’s “gruesome” hands.

“Given Saudi Arabia’s record of kidnaps, torture and other human rights violations, not least the brutal murder of [the Saudi journalist] Jamal Khashoggi, how can he [Prince Mohammed] possibly be considered a fit and proper person?” he asked.

Prince Mohammed has said he takes “full responsibility” for Khashoggi’s murder but denies allegations that he ordered the killing and Dowden’s reply proved instructive.

“The fit and proper person test is undertaken by the Premier League and I don’t want to prejudge the process,” he said. “I would slightly take issue with the characterisation of him [Prince Mohammed] personally and, firstly, it’s the sovereign wealth fund, not him personally buying it. We have good foreign relations with Saudi Arabia but we also have never been shy of raising all of those human rights abuses that you have talked about and we will continue to do so. I think it’s a matter for the Premier League. I am content that they should carry out that test.”

Meanwhile Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, has moved to reassure Amnesty that sufficient rigour will be applied to the governing body’s checks on and it will not be a mere rubber stamping exercise.

Replying to Amnesty’s letter he wrote: “These matters are often subject to media speculation but at their heart are due processes, required by UK law and the Premier League’s own rules, which cannot be conducted in public and on which we cannot comment. However, I can assure you that these processes go beyond those required by UK company law and they are applied with equal rigour to every single prospective purchaser of a Premier League club.” - Guardian

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