The chief executive of the Premier League has rejected claims that the UK government has pressured English football’s top division into approving Saudi Arabia’s £300m takeover of Newcastle United.
Scrutiny of the Saudi-led consortium’s acquisition of Newcastle has intensified during the takeover process, with opponents of the proposed deal calling into question the Gulf kingdom’s record on human rights and television piracy.
Giving evidence to the parliament’s digital, culture, media and sports committee, Richard Masters, the chief executive of the Premier League, said on Tuesday that no minister had expressed a view either way on the deal.
“I’m not aware of government placing any pressure on the Premier League one way or another in relation to any takeover,” said Mr Masters, who added that he “would like the process to conclude shortly”.
John Nicolson, a Scottish National party MP, said he had been told the Premier League had been put under “enormous pressure” by the UK government to look favourably on the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle.
The all-cash deal is subject to the Premier League’s “owners’ and directors’ test”, which includes a series of requirements that determine whether a buyer is allowed to go ahead with an acquisition.
An investment vehicle set up by British financier Amanda Staveley is being used to acquire Newcastle. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, is paying about 80 per cent of the acquisition price.
There have been numerous challenges to securing approval, including the Premier League’s successful efforts to resume its season, which had been suspended because of coronavirus.
The deal has been complicated further by a ruling by the World Trade Organization that Saudi Arabia had “infringed” international trade agreements through its ties to beoutQ, an Arabic language TV network.
Qatar has urged the Premier League to block the takeover because beoutQ has been streaming content, including Premier League matches, rightfully owned by Doha-based beIN, which has spent billions of dollars to secure those rights.
Mr Masters said the Premier League wanted Saudi Arabia to “respond positively to the situation and to allow sports rights holders to protect their rights”. However, he repeatedly declined to answer whether any other state had committed piracy and tried to block the Premier League from taking action to protect rights holders.
In addition to those concerns, Mr Nicolson also raised the killing by Saudi state agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“You could find Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman passing the fit and proper test and taking over a club. How humiliating for you, surely,” said Mr Nicolson. “I just can’t imagine a situation where someone who is implicated in murder is allowed to take over an English club.”
Mr Masters declined to comment on the details of the process, which he said was confidential.
The Premier League chief was being questioned on the broader restart of the football season.
He condemned the mass gatherings seen as Liverpool fans celebrated their team’s title victory last week, and also said the implementation of a tighter lockdown in Leicester “demonstrates the fragile project we have on here”.
“We can’t take it for granted,” he said. “Restarting is one thing, creating more certainty by completing the season is the real prize. Beyond that it is about restarting next season . . . and the return of spectators to stadiums.”