(Reuters) -Saudi Arabian human rights group ALQST accused the Premier League of being driven only by money and employing ‘profoundly inadequate’ criteria for assessing human rights considerations in the wake of Newcastle United being acquired by a Saudi-led consortium.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) — chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman — now owns 80% of the club, with the rest divided between RB Sports & Media and PCP Capital Partners, whose chief executive, Amanda Staveley, led the takeover.
While fans are hopeful that the takeover will help turn the Premier League club’s fortunes around, several human rights groups have questioned the Premier League for allowing the move to go through, pointing to Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record.
“For Saudi Arabia, the deal shows the success of their PR strategy to invest in sporting ventures in a bid to clean up their image. For the Premier League… they are effectively inviting other abusive leaders to follow suit,” ALQST acting director Nabhan al-Hanashi told Reuters.
“Their (Premier League) reasoning that PIF is a separate entity from the Saudi state is farcical — one only has to look at who chairs the PIF — Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself, whose rule has been marked by the most brutal forms of repression.”
Omid Memarian, director of communications at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), told Reuters: “The purpose of this investment is to infiltrate in areas where people invest a lot of emotions… people want to cheer for teams owned by responsible owners and not those who are involved in atrocities.”
DAWN was founded by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly murdered after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, with a U.S. report saying that the prince had approved the operation to kill or capture Khashoggi.
“People should know that the government investing in this club has murdered a journalist and not been held accountable for that,” added Memarian.
The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince and dismissed the report’s findings.
Human Rights Watch described the takeover as a wake-up call for fans, broadcasters and players.
“This is against the backdrop of a strategy by Saudi Arabia to use sports teams, athletes and major sporting events in the country to distract from its national human rights crises,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
The Premier League and PIF did not immediately respond to requests for a comment.
Saudi Arabia’s government denies allegations of human rights abuses and says it is protecting itself from extremists and external factors, while the Premier League said on Thursday that it green-lighted the move after receiving “legally-binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club”.
In an interview to The Times on Thursday, Staveley rejected suggestions of “sportwashing”, saying had that been the case, they would have bought a major franchise in the U.S. and not a club sitting in the relegation zone in the Premier League.
“… This is about business investment and doing something special with a fantastic football club with the best fans in the world,” she said.
(Reporting by Dhruv Munjal in Bengaluru, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Christian Radnedge)