Football: England's Premier League becomes latest proxy for Saudi-Qatar dispute

The beIN group has accused Saudi Arabia of backing a multibillion-dollar piracy operation undermining its valuable television rights by siphoning off its broadcast signals. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - The proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has spilled over into England's Premier League, with a Qatari broadcast company seeking to block a Saudi Arabia-backed takeover of the Newcastle United team.

The company, beIN Media Group, the rights holder for Premier League games shown in the Middle East, has sent a letter to all 20 teams in the league and to its chief executive, discouraging them from allowing any sale to go through.

The beIN group has accused Saudi Arabia of backing a multibillion-dollar piracy operation undermining its valuable television rights by siphoning off its broadcast signals.

The two wealthy countries are locked in a range of political and economic disputes, stoking tension in the Middle East. Relations soured between them in 2017 when Saudi Arabia led a regional boycott of Qatar, accusing the gas-rich emirate of a supporting terrorism and criticising its relationship with Iran.

The letters, signed by beIN's chief executive, Yousef Al-Obaidly, could turn the Premier League into yet another battleground for the countries.

The piracy operation, known as beoutQ, which independent investigators have tied to Saudi Arabia, is the largest in sports history, with the biggest athletic events around the world targeted, most of which were sold to beIN, the world's largest buyer of sports rights.

Under the operation, beIN's broadcasts were transmitted via Arabsat, a regional satellite operator in which Saudi Arabia is the biggest investor, and the beIN feed was identified with a beoutQ logo.

"Why is this important? Not only has the potential acquirer of Newcastle United caused huge damage to your club's and the Premier League's commercial revenues, but the legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward," Al-Obaidly wrote in the letter to the clubs.

"When the Premier League season recommences in the coming months, all of the league's broadcasters' content will continue to be readily and illegally available."

In September, an investigation financed by Fifa, two of its confederations and a group of top European soccer leagues, including the Premier League, concluded "without question" that Arabsat had played a vital role in the piracy operation.

Efforts to litigate against the operation foundered after law firms in Saudi Arabia refused to represent the affected organisations.

Until the dispute, Saudi Arabia was by far beIN's biggest market in the Middle East and North Africa.

Now it is the one country in the world where Premier League content is accessible via only illegal means: either through beIN, which has been banned in the country since 2017, or via illegal television boxes, including beoutQ.

Very little has been said publicly about the sale of Newcastle, but reports of an imminent sale have increased in the past week. The Wall Street Journal in late January first revealed talks between Newcastle's unpopular owner, Mike Ashley, and a group in which Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund is said to be the biggest investor.

Scepticism about the deal remains because of the involvement of English businesswoman Amanda Staveley and her advisory firm, PCP Capital Partners, which have been rumoured to be on the verge of buying Newcastle for several years.

In January 2018, during a previous bout of speculation that linked Staveley to a purchase, advisers close to Ashley released a statement saying there had been "no deal on the table or even under discussion with Amanda Staveley and PCP."

"Attempts to reach a deal with Amanda Staveley and PCP have proved exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time," the advisers said at the time.

This time around, the talk is being taken more seriously because of recent documents filed with the companies register for the United Kingdom that link Staveley with the holding company through which Ashley, a retail billionaire, controls Newcastle.

There has been no comment from Staveley, Newcastle, the Public Investment Fund or the Premier League, which screens potential new investors through a process known as the owners and directors test.

"To the extent the reports about the acquisition of NUFC are correct, we consider it essential for the Premier League to fully investigate the potential acquirer of the club, including all directors, officers and other representatives from the KSA PIF or other Saudi Arabian entities involved in or otherwise providing any financing for the acquisition," Al-Obaidly wrote in a separate letter to the Premier League's chief executive, Richard Masters.

"There appear to be several reasons such an investigation is being called for by other parties, the letter continued. "Our request is purely based on Saudi Arabia's past and present theft of your and your member clubs' intellectual property rights."

There has already been much scrutiny and public comment because of the potential for Saudi state involvement in a league in which owners include the brother of Abu Dhabi's crown prince and a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin.

Human rights groups have criticised the potential sale to Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. Amnesty International's UK director, Kate Allen, also wrote a letter to Masters, the Premier League's chief executive.

"Unless the Premier League pauses and looks seriously at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, it risks becoming a patsy," Allen wrote, warning Masters not to allow the league to be used for what she described as "sportswashing" by Saudi Arabia.

"How can this be positive for the reputation and image of the Premier League?" Allen wrote.

Human rights groups have previously made the same criticism of Qatar's interests in soccer, which include ownership of the Paris St-Germain team and the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup.

For the majority of Newcastle fans, the prospect of a wealthy owner to replace Ashley, an unpopular figure for years, has been a welcome one. Fans have taken to social media expressing support for the idea and even changed their profiles to include the Saudi Arabian flag or the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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