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

Saudi Arabia is using the deal to "distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record,” Felix Jakens of Amnesty International UK said.
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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.

Image: A general view outside St James' Park in Newcastle on April 15, 2020.
Newcastle United's St James' Park stadium.Lee Smith / Reuters

“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.

Image: Simon Reuben and David Reuben attend a private view of "Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition" at The Design Museum
British billionaire brothers Simon Reuben and David Reuben plan to take a 10 per cent stake in Newcastle United, a spokesperson told NBC News.David M. Benett / Getty file

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.

Image: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Future Investment Initiative FII conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been criticized for Saudi Arabia's role in Yemen's civil war. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP - Getty Images file

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.

Image: Businesswoman Amanda Staveley in the stands during the Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle.
Businesswoman Amanda Staveley at an English Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle.Owen Humphreys / PA Images via Getty Images file

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

It was a “blatant whitewash,” Jakens said.

Although EPL club Sheffield United is already owned privately by a Saudi prince, Abdullah bin Musa'ad, the Newcastle takeover would be the first time the Saudi state has ventured into soccer club ownership overseas and the prospect is exciting for some of the clubs fans who have witnessed success when other wealthy state actors from the Middle East have taken over teams.

Manchester City was — like Newcastle — an underachieving side when Abu Dhabi royal and United Arab Emirates Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought the club in 2008. Since then, it has become one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world and a regular EPL winner.

Paris Saint-Germain has also dominated French soccer after being bought by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011. The subsidiary of the Qatar sovereign wealth fund has since spent over $1 billion signing some of the world soccer’s biggest stars.

Alex Hurst, chairman of Newcastle United Supporters Trust, said news of the takeover had "given the whole city, the whole region, a buzz even in these difficult times,”

Image: Newcastle owner Mike Ashley attends the FA Cup Fourth Round replay between Oxford United and Newcastle United at the Kassam Stadium, Oxford
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been unpopular during his 13 year tenure as owner of the EPL clubNurPhoto / Getty Images file

Many fans have grown increasingly disillusioned during 13 years of ownership by Ashley, he said. Once a regular participant in Europe’s top club competitions prior to Ashley’s tenure, the team has struggled since, twice being relegated from the EPL and falling behind its rivals.

It is how the club has been run off the pitch that has bothered fans the most, Hurst said, adding that the supporters had been treated with “contempt.”

Fans also criticized the club’s decision to claim government money during the coronavirus outbreak to furlough nonplaying staff, while at the same time charging supporters for next year’s season tickets. The current season remains suspended, as large sporting events are banned during the U.K.’s national lockdown, and no date for resumption has been declared.

While Hurst admitted some Newcastle fans will feel “conflicted” by accusations of “sportswashing”, he said that many will welcome new owners who he feels will look to run the club so that it can be the “the best that it can be on and off the pitch”.

Questions on “sportswashing” were “better put towards the Premier League and the government who have a really strong relationship with the Saudi royal family,” he said. The U.K. licensed billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, until the government lost a court ruling last year.

“We aren’t the ones with the power here," Hurst added.

But Jakens said he believed that fans do have a key role to play and argued that the sportswashing “spell” can be broken “if fans familiarize themselves with the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia” and “speak out about it.”