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‘Boldest move yet’

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Amnesty International CEO Sacha

Amnesty International CEO Sacha Deshmukh is seeking a meeting with the Premier League to discuss changes to its owners’ and directors’ test following Newcastle United’s controversial takeover by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium. 

Last week it was confirmed that the £305m bid had been approved by the league and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) would take an 80% controlling share in the Tyneside club. The completion of the deal has sparked widespread criticism due to the Middle East country’s poor human rights record. 

Amnesty International described the takeover[1] as an “extremely bitter blow for human rights defenders” and questions have been raised over the possibility of “sportswashing” by Saudi Arabia, The Guardian[2] reported.

In a letter seen by the Press Association[3], Deshmukh has written to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and asked how the current owners’ and directors’ test has “nothing whatsoever” to say about human rights.  

“The way the Premier League waved this deal through raises a host of deeply troubling questions about sportswashing, about human rights and sport, and about the integrity of English football,” Deshmukh wrote. “Football is a global sport on a global stage - it urgently needs to update its ownership rules to prevent those implicated in serious human rights violations from buying into the passion and glamour of English football.” 

‘Boldest move yet’

Saudi Arabia’s association with sport has become an “integral, and contentious, part of its efforts to rebrand”, said The Guardian[4]’s Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov. But the takeover of Newcastle is the kingdom’s “boldest move yet, placing it firmly on the world’s sporting stage, and squarely in the crosshairs of its critics”.

When the Premier League confirmed the approval[5] of the takeover it had “legally binding assurances” that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle. Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is listed as chair of the PIF, but the Premier League was satisfied the state would have no dealings with the football club. 

Amnesty has offered to meet Masters with corporate lawyer David Chivers QC. Last year Chivers wrote a new human rights-compliant owners’ and directors’ test on the campaign group’s behalf and an updated test was sent to the Premier League last July. “We hope that Richard Masters will see that making the football’s ownership rules human rights-compliant can only be for the long-term good of the game,” Deshmukh said. 

What is sportwashing?

The Macmillan Dictionary[6] defines sportwashing as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation”.

In the past few years Saudi Arabia has emerged “over and above” its Middle Eastern neighbours in trying to “paint a rosy picture of the country while prosecuting those for standing up to it”, Firstpost[7] explained. And it is not a new concept. The 1934 Fifa World Cup in Italy and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were both tools to spread propaganda by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively.

The Gulf state has gone from hosting boxing bouts, horse racing and wrestling to now owning Newcastle and also preparing for a Formula 1 grand prix in Jeddah in December. This “sportswashing programme” all comes at a huge cost, said human rights organisation Grant Liberty[8]. In a report published in March it estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5bn (£1.1bn) on high-profile international sporting events.

Sportswashing is the “grim game of our times”, The Irish Times[9] said in 2018. That year the term earned itself the attention of Oxford Dictionaries, which placed it as part of an expanding range of coinages where the suffix “washing” is applied to suggest deceptive, insincere and opportunistic appropriation of some value or cause. 


  1. ^ the takeover (www.theweek.co.uk)
  2. ^ The Guardian (www.theguardian.com)
  3. ^ Press Association (www.skysports.com)
  4. ^ The Guardian (www.theguardian.com)
  5. ^ confirmed the approval (www.premierleague.com)
  6. ^ Macmillan Dictionary (www.macmillandictionary.com)
  7. ^ Firstpost (www.firstpost.com)
  8. ^ Grant Liberty (grantliberty.org)
  9. ^ The Irish Times (www.irishtimes.com)

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