Football: Amnesty voices 'sportswashing' fears over Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle

Fans react outside the stadium after Newcastle United announced the takeover. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) - Amnesty International has condemned the Premier League's test to assess the suitability of owners and directors as unfit for purpose as a Saudi-led consortium completed its takeover of struggling Newcastle on Thursday (Oct 7).

The human rights group has lobbied English football chiefs for more than a year to reject the takeover, warning it is part of Saudi Arabia's efforts to "sportswash" its human rights record.

However, the controversial deal received the green light from the Premier League after the settling of a piracy dispute over television rights in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Under the £300 million (S$500 million) deal, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) will reportedly take an 80 per cent stake in the club, with other investors buying the remaining 20 per cent.

"Today's decision shows that English football is open for business when it comes to sportswashing," Amnesty's head of campaigns in the UK, Felix Jakens, told AFP.

"Ever since this deal was first talked about, Amnesty have said it represents a very clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record using the glamour of the Premier League."

The owners' and directors' test bars those with unspent criminal convictions taking charge of clubs and is used as a mechanism to ensure they have the funds to back a takeover.

But Jakens said the test has "gaps in it so wide you could drive a bus through them".

Human rights

Amnesty has called on the Premier League to amend the regulations, which make no mention of human rights.

The takeover consortium convinced the Premier League that the Saudi state is separate from the PIF, something that Amnesty called into question.

"Given the beneficial ownership goes all the way to (Saudi Crown Prince) Mohammed bin Salman, it seems a very strange distinction to be making," added Jakens.

"We've been clear throughout. This deal is about Saudi ownership of Newcastle one way or another as an opportunity to talk positively about the country and deflect negative attention that rightly comes their way over their human rights record."

Despite the criticism by rights campaigners, Newcastle fans have been rejoicing at the prospect of seeing their fortunes transformed on the pitch.

The Magpies have not won a major trophy since 1969 and sit second bottom of the Premier League, without a win in their opening seven games of the new season.

"We've always been clear this is nothing to do with Newcastle or the Newcastle fans," said Jakens.

"They are going to be overjoyed that new backing is coming to their club and potentially bringing trophies back to the north-east.

"We would say those fans should make themselves as aware as they can of who their owners are and what the human rights situation in Saudi is.

"What it is like for women? For LGBT people? How they use the death penalty? The ongoing war in Yemen.

"And be prepared as activist fans, as people who love the club, to speak out on those human rights violations."

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