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Newcastle takeover in doubt as WTO finds Saudi Arabia behind illegal sports streaming service: report

Saudi's Public Investment Fund is overseen by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 May, 2020

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Newcastle's £300m takeover is in serious doubt after the World Trade Organisation ruled that Saudi Arabia is behind pirate TV station beoutQ.
The controversial takeover of an English football club by Saudi Arabia has been put into doubt on Tuesday, after it was claimed that Riyadh was responsible for the illegal streaming of Premier League matches and other sporting events in the Middle East.

The Saudi bid to buy Newcastle United may be stopped by the Premier League after the World Trade Organisation ruled that the nation is behind the illegal streaming service beoutQ, according to a 130-page report seen by the Guardian.

"It is understood that the independent ruling firmly establishes that the Saudi government is behind beoutQ," the Guardian report said, revealing that the Premier League has received the report and made legal submissions against Riyadh.

The WTO's report came after a number of football leagues and organisations, including the Premier League, Fifa, Uefa, and La Liga, attempted to take legal action against Saudi-based beoutQ for illegally streaming matches, but local legal firms refused to take on their copyright case.

A case was then made to the WTO, the highest judicial body that could rule on the matter.

The full report, which will be made public in mid-June, is likely to hinder the possible $365m takeover of the northeast English club by Saudi's Public Investment Fund.

The PIF is a sovereign wealth fund overseen by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who, Amnesty told the Premier League, has been involved in a "sweeping crackdown on human rights" as the activists try to thwart the takeover.

Read also: Khashoggi fiance: Saudi takeover of Newcastle United would make Premier League 'complicit in murder cover-up'

Qatar-owned beIN Sports, which has a three-year contract worth $500 million to exclusively air the Premier League across the Middle East, had also asked for the buyout of Newcastle to be potentially blocked due to the inaction on broadcasting piracy.

BeIN has alleged that following a breakdown in relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and its allies in 2017, Riyadh established a bootleg sport TV operation that stole BeIN's feeds. The streams were then rebroadcast on satellites controlled from Riyadh, BeIN says. 

Though the satellite broadcasts have ceased, BeIN maintains that the set-top boxes distributed by the beoutQ piracy operation still enable access to illegal sports broadcasts using internet technology. 

Meanwhile, it was reported on Tuesday that Saudi's PIF made a non-refundable deposit of £17 million to Newcastle United's current owner Mike Ashley as part of the deal to buy 80 percent of the club. However, the final decision on the takeover rests with the Premier League.

As per regulations established by the league, any new directors or owners of a football club must pass a "fit and proper person test" if seeking more than 30 percent of a club's shares.

Among a number of different criteria, these include examining potential buyers for any criminal convictions and assessing conduct outside the UK which could constitute an offence according to British law.

Separately, critics have also accused Saudi Arabia of "sports washing", saying the government will use the Newcastle United takeover and sporting events to distract attention from its human rights record.

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