On October 8th, the Premier League confirmed the takeover of Newcastle United: one of English football’s most historic clubs. Despite ending the historically unpopular 14-year reign of Mike Ashley as owner of the club, the takeover welcomed an authoritarian leader into league’s ranks. This is because the consortium that purchased the club is headed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (“PIF”), which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”).
Saudi Arabia and its leaders, especially its Crown Prince, are responsible for numerous human rights violations. Reputable intelligence officials concluded that the country’s leadership was responsible for the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident and Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi. The country has been the perpetrator of countless human rights violations, including the arbitrary detaining of female activists, the criminalization of same-sex relations, and the excessive use of the death penalty. Further, a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes against civilian targets—which Human Rights Watch has said may amount to war crimes.
Put simply, Saudi Arabia’s own laws and actions directly cut against the Premier League’s values, including its Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Policy. So why did the Premier League allow a PIF-led consortium to purchase the club?
Well, the Premier League has an Owners’ and Directors’ Test, which is intended to establish objective criteria to assess whether an individual is fit to control a football club. The test includes a checklist of “disqualifying events” that would rule-out a potential owner or director. The majority of disqualifiers relate to a potential owner or director’s conflicts of interest, history of gambling, and records of financial impropriety. As the former CEO of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore said that this not a “cut of your jib test.” Instead, this is an objective test that requires the Premier League Board to point to an explicit disqualifying event in order to prohibit a group like PIF–which is essentially an arm of the Saudi Arabian government–from purchasing an interest in a club.
Still, the Premier League could have pointed to their one catchall provision: Rule F.1.6. Under this rule, an individual is disqualified if “in the reasonable opinion of the board, he/she has engaged in conduct outside of the UK that would constitute an offence if such conduct had taken place in the UK, whether or not such conduct resulted in a conviction.” It would appear obvious that MBS, the Chair of PIF, has undoubtedly engaged in conduct that would be illegal under UK law. For example, his alleged involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would surely be a disqualifying event. So, why did the Premier League not bar the takeover from occuring?
Well, according to the Premier League, they “received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.” As part of the agreement, Amanda Staveley, the chief executive of PCP Capital, which owns 10% of the club, will take a seat on Newcastle's board. Meanwhile, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF, will act as the club’s non-executive chairman. However, MBS will not have an official position within the club. Although the Premier League has not disclosed the details of their approval process, this arrangement appears to have allowed MBS, specifically, to sidestep the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test entirely. This is despite the fact that he has de-facto control over the entity that owns 80% of the team.
This situation represents a clear failure of the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ test. Whether MBS has the ability to directly control Newcastle United should be irrelevant. Newcastle fans clearly recognize who own their club, as demonstrated by fans who waved the Saudi Arabia flag and wore Saudi-inspired clothes at the first game after PIF’s takeover of the team was finalized.
Sports are an integral part of our culture. By being able to purchase one of the country’s most historic teams, MBS and the Saudi Arabian government are able to co-op the Premier League brand in order to “sportswash” their country’s human rights record. Despite the Premier League having already approved some controversial owners and regardless of the Premier League’s ability to retroactively apply an owner’s test to the Saudi-led consortium, this must serve as a wakeup call to all sports leagues: Professional leagues must engage in a comprehensive reform of their ownership tests to ensure that a club’s owner does not directly contradict the values that their league stands for.
 Newcastle Takeover Completed: Saudi-led Consortium End Mike Ashley’s 14-year Ownership, Sky Sports (October 8, 2021), https://www.skysports.com/football/news/11678/12427983/newcastle-takeover-completed-saudi-led-consortium-end-mike-ashleys-14-year-ownership.
 Rick Kelsey, Newcastle United Takeover: What Is PIF, the Main Owner of the Club?, BBC (October 10, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-58842557.
 Agnes Callamard, Khashoggi Killing: UN Human Rights Expert Says Saudi Arabia is Responsible for ‘Premeditated Execution’, United Nation Commission for Human Rights (June 19, 2019), https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24713.
 Saudi Arabia: Allow Access to Detained Women Activists, Human Rights Watch (December 6, 2018), https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/06/saudi-arabia-allow-access-detained-women-activists.
 Saudi Arabia: Events of 2020, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/saudi-arabia (last visited Nov. 20, 2021).
 Premier League, Rule J.4 (2020-2021), https://resources.premierleague.com/premierleague/document/2020/09/11/dc7e76c1-f78d-45a2-be4a-4c6bc33368fa/2020-21-PL-Handbook-110920.pdf.
 Id., Rule F.
 Matt Slater, Explained: What is Football’s Fit and Proper Person Test?, The Athletic (April 26, 2020), https://theathletic.com/1772035/2020/04/26/fit-and-proper-premier-league-newcastle-takeover/.
 Supra note 7, Rule F.1.6.
 Newcastle United: Saudi-Arabian-backed Takeover Completed, BBC (October 7, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/58826899.
 Philip Buckingham, Premier League Clubs Could Have Changed the Owners’ and Directors’ Test, The Athletic (October 13, 2021), https://theathletic.com/2886641/2021/10/13/newcastle-premier-league-owners-directors-test-fit-for-purpose/.
 Luke Brown, Newcastle Ask Fans Not to Wear ‘Traditional Arabic Clothing’ at Matches, The Athletic (October 20, 2021), https://theathletic.com/news/newcastle-ask-fans-not-to-wear-traditional-arabic-clothing-at-matches/r252RI9DvFzE/.
 Newcastle United Deal Was Always ‘Blatant’ Saudi Sportswashing, Amnesty International UK (July, 30, 2020), https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/newcastle-united-deal-was-always-blatant-saudi-sportswashing.