Amnesty International has written to the Premier League saying it “risks becoming a patsy” unless it takes a serious look at Saudi Arabia’s human rights record with regard to the takeover of Newcastle.
The north-east club are reportedly on the verge of being sold to a Saudi-backed consortium which involves Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for around £300million.
It was reported on Tuesday that a non-refundable deposit of £17million has already been paid to current owner Mike Ashley as part of the deal.
The Premier League must decide if the new owners meet the criteria in its owners and directors test, and Amnesty insists unless the league provides thorough justification for its decision to approve the takeover, it will damage its own reputation.
In a letter from Amnesty UK director Kate Allen to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters, she wrote: “I believe there are serious questions to address in determining whether the owners and directors of the company seeking to acquire NUFC are meeting standards that can protect the reputation and image of the game.
“If the Crown Prince, by virtue of his authority over Saudi Arabia’s economic relations and via control of his country’s sovereign wealth fund, becomes the beneficial owner of NUFC, how can this be positive for the reputation and image of the Premier League?
“So long as these questions (concerning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record) remain unaddressed, the Premier League is putting itself at risk of becoming a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the Premier League and the global footballing community.”
Saudi Arabia has been heavily criticised over its human rights record, with Amnesty pointing to the imprisonment and torture of government critics and the execution of others following unfair trials.
Allen added in her letter: “While Saudi Arabia would not be the only country whose businesses have bought a significant stake in a Premier League club, there are two aspects of the proposed acquisition that would set this apart.
“First, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy in which the Crown Prince plays the role of King and has control of all economic, political and foreign relations. With oversight of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, it is very unlikely that an important business transaction such as the takeover of a Premier League club could happen without his authorisation.
“More significantly, the Crown Prince has been using sporting events and personalities as a means of improving the Kingdom’s reputation following the grisly murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi – widely believed to have taken place with his approval. Such positive associations with sporting events also distract attention from Saudi’s appalling human rights record, including the imprisonment and torture of women human rights defenders – women like Loujain al-Hathloul – for advocating for equal rights and an end to discrimination.”
The Crown Prince has previously said in a TV interview that he takes “full responsibility” for the murder of Khashoggi, but he denies allegations that he ordered the killing.
In a statement separate to the letter sent to Masters, Allen said: “The coronavirus crisis has already thrown a spotlight on football and its need to treat players and staff fairly, and now there’s a danger that the pandemic could obscure the need for a cool, measured and genuinely ethical decision over this Newcastle deal.
“All businesses need to safeguard against any possible links to human rights violations, and English football is no different.
“This is more than just a financial transaction – it’s an image-building exercise that draws on the prestige of the Premier League and the passion of Newcastle United’s fanbase.
“Whether or not this deal goes ahead, we’re calling on Newcastle United staff and fans to familiarise themselves with the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about it.
“At the very least, the Premier League should make a clear statement over how its owners and directors test has been applied in this case, and what assessment has been made of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record under Mohammad bin Salman’s leadership.”
The Premier League’s owners and directors test assesses the suitability of would-be buyers on a set of established criteria.
The rules allow the league to consider whether the buyers have the means to fund the club, and examine any criminal convictions in the UK or overseas.
Asked about the possibility of a Saudi takeover of Newcastle in early February, Masters said: “The owners and directors test is about as private and confidential a test as it comes, so it is impossible for me to comment on what the conclusions of the Premier League board would be in such a scenario because it is hypothetical.
“There are a set of objective tests which are financially related and there are also tests – and again, I am not linking this with anybody – about crimes committed overseas or activities which might be seen as criminal in this country might be taken into account.
“But that is part and parcel of the test. That is an objective test.”
Outside of those comments from Masters more than two months ago, the Premier League has not made any comment related to the proposed takeover of Newcastle.