Qatar’s state broadcaster has demanded the English Premier League blocks the Saudi Arabia-backed takeover of Newcastle United football club because of the kingdom’s alleged involvement in television piracy, as the political tensions in the Gulf spill into the sporting arena.
The Public Investment Fund, steered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is providing the vast majority of funding for a £300m deal to acquire the team from British retail billionaire Mike Ashley. The transaction would make it the latest Middle Eastern investor in European football, following the Abu Dhabi-backed ownership of Manchester City and Qatar’s funding of Paris Saint-Germain.
This week beIN, the Doha-based group which is the biggest overseas television partner for English football’s top tier, has written to the league and its member clubs calling for them to further investigate the Newcastle deal.
It claims that the Saudi state is behind a pirate Arabic-language television network called beoutQ, which has been streaming content including English football matches, for which beIN has spent billions of dollars acquiring exclusive rights. Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied the allegations, but beIN has previously been supported in its claims by Premier League and Fifa, international football’s governing body.
“Not only has the potential acquirer of Newcastle United caused huge damage to your clubs and the Premier League’s commercial revenues; but the legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward,” wrote beIN Media Group chief Yousef Al-Obaidly in a letter to 20 Premier League clubs.
The Times was first to report on beIN’s letters sent to the Premier League.
The row reveals how the Premier League must navigate the rivalries between the region’s absolute monarchies, which have spent their petrodollars on sporting events and groups while also being entangled in political and economic battles. The piracy accusations are part of an ongoing dispute which erupted in 2017 when Riyadh and three Arab allies cut diplomatic and transport links to Qatar.
The Saudi takeover of Newcastle, brokered by UK financier Amanda Staveley, is being scrutinised by Premier League officials. The body can block takeovers through its “owners’ and directors’ test” — a detailed assessment of the finances and business plan of prospective buyers.
BeIN’s demand is that this test takes into account the alleged Saudi involvement in the beoutQ network. “Our request is purely based on Saudi Arabia’s past and present theft of your and your member clubs’ intellectual property rights,” wrote Mr Al-Obaidly in a separate letter to the Premier League chief executive Richard Masters.
In 2017, following disquiet over the backgrounds of new club owners, the Premier League tightened its rules to bar potential owners if they had committed an act in a foreign jurisdiction that would be considered a criminal offence in the UK, even if not illegal in their home territory.
Activists, such as Amnesty International, have applied pressure by describing the Newcastle takeover as an attempt to “sportswash” the country’s poor human rights record. Similar accusations have been levelled against other Middle Eastern owners of football clubs, including Qatar.
The Premier League declined to comment.