As Premier League Weighs Saudi Bid for Newcastle, It Criticized Kingdom

Well, this is awkward.

Just weeks before the Premier League started to review a bid by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to become the majority owner of one of its soccer teams, it asked the United States to maintain the kingdom’s spot on a watch list for countries that breach intellectual property rules.

In a letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative in February, the Premier League said the Saudis were in effect enabling the world’s most sophisticated sports piracy network. The American agency ultimately included Saudi Arabia in its list of 10 countries on a priority watch list.

The Premier League is the most watched domestic league in the world, and it accused the Saudis of allowing the transmission of games that would command rights fees worth billions of dollars to be rebroadcast for free via an operator based in Saudi Arabia.

The list of countries that are failing to maintain adequate protection for intellectual property rights was published Wednesday night, and coincides with a league review of a bid by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to buy Newcastle United.

Saudi involvement in the deal, which would be the kingdom’s first major European soccer investment, has drawn tremendous scrutiny, with human rights campaigners and one of the Premier League’s major broadcast partners urging it to block the purchase.

Very little has been said publicly about the sale of Newcastle, but reports of an imminent deal have increased in recent weeks. According to multiple people familiar with the matter, the Premier League is now conducting its so-called owners and directors test, a review of the fitness of the prospective investors to run the club.

A Premier League spokeswoman said it did not comments on takeovers. A spokesman for the prospective ownership group was not able to comment at the time of publication.

The group, led by the English businesswoman Amanda Staveley, includes two British property tycoons, and the Saudi investment amounts to 80 percent of the purchase price.

In its letter, the Premier League criticized Saudi Arabia for persistently failing to take action against the rogue operator, beoutQ, a play on the name of beIN Media Group.

The network, which is based in Qatar, has paid more to air the Premier League than all but one of its overseas partners for exclusive rights to broadcast games in the Middle East.

The dispute over the network has its roots in the wider regional dispute between a group of countries, led by the Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates, and Qatar, a tiny but wealthy Gulf emirate.

In a letter last week to the league’s 20 clubs and its chief executive, beIN urged them to reject the Saudi effort to take over Newcastle, noting that the league would be allowing the owner of team to permit the piracy of its lucrative broadcasts.

“Why is this important? Not only has the potential acquirer of Newcastle United caused huge damage to your club’s and the Premier League’s commercial revenues, but the legacy of the illegal service will continue to impact you going forward,” beIN’s chief executive, Yousef Al-Obaidly, wrote in the letter to the clubs. “When the Premier League season recommences in the coming months, all of the league’s broadcasters’ content will continue to be readily and illegally available.”

Saudi Arabia was named as a priority on the list for a second year, alongside China, Russia, Ukraine, India and Venezuela.

Saudi Arabia has long denied the sophisticated and professionally managed beoutQ operation is based in the kingdom. But investigators found set top boxes embossed with the network’s logo for sale in stores there, and until the middle of last year the network was aired by Arabset, a Gulf satellite operator in which Saudi Arabia is the biggest investor. BeoutQ channels remain available in Saudi Arabia over IPTV, a form of broadcasting transmitted via the internet.

The Premier League said in its submission to the United States authorities said it had tried and failed to find legal counsel in Saudi Arabia to make a civil claim against those Saudi entities they believe to be behind beoutQ. The league said it was “ultimately frustrated following the decision by multiple legal representatives to withdraw their services.”

“Ultimately the Saudi Arabian legal system is not allowing the Premier League to have access to it,” the league wrote. In the final line of its letter, it urged the United States to “maintain Saudi Arabia’s position on the Priority Watch List.”

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