A group of cross-party MPs have launched an 11th hour bid to torpedo the Saudi Arabia takeover at Newcastle United, by telling the Premier League any deal will help whitewash the state's repressive regime.
England's top tier "should do everything in its power to bring individuals carrying out human rights abuses to account", according to the letter from eight MPs to Richard Masters, the league's chief executive.
The group expressed particular concern at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's chairmanship of the state's Public Investment Fund, which wants an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle.
"Unless Saudi Arabia reform their criminal justice system and release all political detainees, the Premier League cannot sign-off on the sale of Newcastle United to PIF," says the letter from John Nicolson, Damian Collins, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell, Crispin Blunt, Virendra Sharma, Alistair Carmichael, Lord Judd, Chris Law and Baroness Young of Hornsey.
The state-ordered murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been disastrous for bin Salman's current campaign to earn new Western allies, but he has pressed ahead with dramatic reform in his attempts to modernise Saudi, and diverse his economy away from oil.
Masters has already received several warnings over the deal from the likes of Amnesty International over the state's human rights record and Qatari broadcaster BeIN Sports over the nation's role in the beOutQ TV piracy scandal.
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of PIF, is in line to be nominated chairman of Newcastle if the deal goes through. With a long-awaited decision from the league's directors and owners' test still pending, the MPs see their letter to Masters as the last chance to derail the deal.
"There are serious concerns regarding his (bin Salman's) suitability as a ‘fit and proper person’ as defined by the English Premier League (EPL) Handbook. Section F.1.6, which applies to both owners and directors of football clubs, provides that an individual cannot hold such a position if the board determines that certain offenses conducted outside the United Kingdom would disqualify them from such a position," the letter says.
Mr Nicolson, an SNP member of the Select; Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told the Daily Telegraph: “On top of the disgraceful assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia under the stewardship of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continue to commit human rights violations at an egregious level. Whether using detention as a tool of political repression, which has seen senior royals such as Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Prince Turki bin Abdullah imprisoned, or the continued detention of women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul and hundreds of other prisoners of conscience, Saudi Arabia are trying to whitewash their image through this acquisition.”
The MPs claim the Premier League's own rulebook should immediately exclude Saudi. "According to sub paragraph F.1.5.2 and F.1.5.3, these offenses include 'any offence involving any act which could reasonably be considered to be dishonest'," the letter adds, also citing oppressive living conditions for women. "We are seeking clarification on how the Premier League could possibly define the head of one of the most repressive regimes in the world as ‘fit and proper’. This is the head of a regime whose war in Yemen has resulted in one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, who executed 184 people in 2019, and who continue to repress any form of dissent through the use of illegal detention.
"The Saudi authorities are only too aware of these allegations, and through a sophisticated ‘sportswashing’ campaign, are attempting to whitewash their reputation as a repressive regime. By enabling this, the Premier League is facilitating this activity and acting as a laundry service for repressive regimes to improve their images internationally."
Last month the state was criticised by the World Trade Organisation for turning a blind eye to piracy. This week the country escalated its ongoing dispute with Qatar by permanently banning beIN Sports, the only Premier League TV rights-holder for the region.
"We are gravely concerned by the direction of travel of Saudi Arabia and believe the English Premier League should do everything in its power to bring individuals carrying out human rights abuses to account," the letter adds. "Unless Saudi Arabia reform their criminal justice system and release all political detainees, the Premier League cannot sign-off on the sale of Newcastle United to the PIF. Human rights should be a red line in any proposed sale of a club."
Current owner Mike Ashley bought Newcastle in 2007 and put the club up for sale in 2017. The prospective owners hoped to complete the deal, brokered by British financier Amanda Staveley, before the resumption of season last month.