The boss of Amnesty International has hammered Saudi leaders after setting up talks with the Premier League, insisting that their involvement with Newcastle is a cynical attempt to sportswash an “appalling” human rights record.
Sacha Deshmukh wrote to his Premier League counterpart, Richard Masters, earlier in October to request a negotiation over changes to the current owners’ and directors’ test, which he has described as “woefully inadequate”.
The Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund became a majority owner of Newcastle three weeks over, buying an 80% stake in the relegation-threatened club as part of a $420 million takeover.
This came despite its head, the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, being accused of involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in 2018, as well as wider allegations of human rights abuses by the Kingdom.
Deshmukh called the takeover “an extremely bitter blow for human rights defenders”, going through after purported “legally binding assurances” that the Gulf country will play no part in how the club is run.
Despite his concerns over the prince’s involvement, Deshmukh is satisfied that the Premier League is taking a receptive stance and hopes to launch a process that “leads to considerable strengthening of the rules on football governance” after his meeting with Masters.
“The current rules concerning who owns and runs English football clubs are woefully inadequate, with no bar on ownership for those complicit in acts of torture, slavery, human trafficking or even war crimes,” he told Sky Sports.
“The Saudi buyout of Newcastle United always looked like an attempt to sportswash Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record with the glamour and prestige of the Premier League and top-flight football.
“Under Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, government critics and human rights defenders have been jailed, civilian deaths from Saudi bombing in Yemen have mounted inexorably, and the grotesque killing of Jamal Khashoggi has been subject to a whitewash.
“There is now huge disquiet over the cynical use of English football to sportswash human rights abuse.
“We’re keen to discuss with Richard Masters our ideas for a human rights-compliant Owners’ and Directors’ test which can help weed out unsuitable owners complicit in human rights violations, as well as reducing sportswashing and generally improving governance within the game.”
Newcastle fans have generally welcomed the takeover, which replaced the stewardship of hugely unpopular former owner Mike Ashley at the helm of the club.
A high-profile protest was visible as Newcastle visited Crystal Palace in their first Premier League match following the takeover, when fans unfurled a cartoon banner which is now being investigated by the police.
A van showing Khashoggi’s face also circled Newcastle’s St James’ Park stadium during their first match under their new hierarchy.