Saudi rights record questioned as its takeover of Premier League’s Newcastle United edges closer

April 26, 2020 Off By enlivenlabs

Saudi Arabia has been accused of attempting to “distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record” as it leads a consortium trying to take over the English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United.

A spokesperson for one of the buyers confirmed to NBC News on Thursday that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund was the driving force behind the deal that appeared close to conclusion.

The prospect of current owner and retail magnate Mike Ashley leaving the club, based in the city of Newcastle in England’s northeast, has excited a large part of the fanbase who have long accused him of underinvesting in the team and ignoring supporters’ concerns.

But the involvement of the Saudi state has made others uneasy and rights groups have accused the country of “sportswashing.”

“Saudi Arabia is attempting to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football as a PR tool to distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record,” Felix Jakens, the head of priority campaigns at Amnesty International UK, said

“There’s a name for this – it’s called sportswashing”, he added, referring to the idea of countries using sporting events or franchises to launder their reputations and poor human rights records.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — a key ally of the Trump White House — is planning to take 80 percent of the club, according to a spokesperson for the British billionaire Reuben brothers, who are themselves planning to take a 10 percent stake.

British financier Amanda Staveley will take the final 10 percent through her company PCP Capital Partners, the spokesperson said, before indicating the deal is currently being reviewed by the Premier League.

Documents filed at Companies House — the United Kingdom’s company registrar — indicate the legal framework for a deal has been put in place.

When NBC News approached Newcastle United, the Saudi fund and Staveley, they did not respond. The Premier League said it had “no comment.”

Were the deal to go through, it would be Saudi Arabia’s most ambitious foray into the sports world to date. In December, it hosted the heavyweight boxing title fight between American Andy Ruiz Jr. and former British champion Anthony Joshua. Joshua regained his three titles on points.

Several WWE events have also been held in the Gulf state, as the kingdom looks to improve its reputation abroad and diversify the economy away from oil production as part of it’s “Vision 2030” strategy.

Inside the strictly conservative country, the crown prince has introduced some reforms. Women have been allowed to drive and he has also weakened the “male guardianship system”, which prevents Saudi women from making critical decisions without a male relative’s permission. Last year, the kingdom launched a new visa scheme, allowing more foreign tourists to visit.

But rights groups say these have been accompanied by authoritarian suppression of his political rivals and public dissenters.

“Human rights defenders have been subjected to a brutal crackdown, with numerous peaceful activists jailed,” Jakens said.

Saudi involvement in Yemen’s civil war has also damaged its image abroad. The conflict has killed over 100,000 people and created a humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages. Rights groups have criticized Saudi Arabia for the humanitarian toll.

There was also global condemnation of the crown prince after it emerged that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Five men were sentenced to death in December and another three were sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison for their roles in the killing.

While the crown prince took personal responsibility, he denied that he had ordered the killing himself. The CIA came to a different conclusion.