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14 May, 2020 16:43

Saudi Arabia vs Qatar: The new twist in the Newcastle takeover shows the symbolism of sport in the nations' geopolitical stand-off

Saudi Arabia vs Qatar: The new twist in the Newcastle takeover shows the symbolism of sport in the nations' geopolitical stand-off

If the Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United seemed to inch closer last week, the last few days have put it on the back foot and left many wondering whether bitter rivals Qatar could sink Saudi hopes of Premier League entry.

On Thursday it emerged that one important part of the power struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia could be about to come under the scrutiny of British politicians as they are increasingly urged to block the $365 million Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle.

The issue stems from a dispute in which both sides claimed victory when they came under the gaze of French judges last summer, when a court ruled that Arabsat, a huge satellite communications group serving the Arab world from the Saudi capital, is a signal-carrier of beoutQ, a Riyadh-based pirate broadcaster.

BeoutQ is accused of continuing to systematically pirate content provided by beIN Sports, the broadcasting giant headed by Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who leads the Qatar Sports Investment group which bought Paris Saint Germain in 2012 and acts as president of the French giants.

READ MORE: Saudi shake-up: How the Newcastle takeover will send shockwaves through football 

This alleged Saudi-facilitated pirating is the nemesis of Al-Khelaifi, who is widely considered to be the most powerful man in French football and is on the organizing committee for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

According to Qatari newspaper The Peninsula, beoutQ “stole” every match of tournaments including last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, Copa America and Cup of Nations, broadcasting them illegally.

That led to beIN blaming the Saudi operation when it laid off 300 staff in June, claiming that the piracy had removed its access to Saudi Arabia, which is the biggest market in the region, despite paying for exclusive access to broadcast rights for star pulls such as the Premier League and the Champions League in the Middle East and North Africa regions.

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Last year, Qatar’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry welcomed progress in a case overseen by the World Trade Organization aimed at settling the dispute, in which beIN accused beoutQ of conducting the most widespread piracy operation that the world has ever seen, with football at the centre of its work.

The French court ruled that BeIN had failed to show evidence of “clear and illegal disruption” as a result of beoutQ’s activity, but the ministry will now be hoping that this piracy could scupper the Saudi-led consortium’s attempt to take over Newcastle.

Giles Watling, the member of the UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee who has called for an examination of Saudi-based piracy of British sport to be urgently held in the shadow of the takeover, has now said that the Saudi Public Investment Fund behind the bid for Newcastle is driven by “the same entity that backs beoutQ – Saudi Arabia.”

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With the UK government refusing to comment on the controversial takeover to a select committee recently, Watling believes the need to investigate is “particularly pressing.”

Intervention from the UK Parliament would be a major hurdle as Saudi Arabia looks to play catch-up with Qatar by laying claim to the Premier League club.

While the kingdom has paid vast amounts to host major events including the Spanish Super Cup and heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua’s triumphant rematch against Andy Ruiz – and repeatedly been accused of "sportswashing" its approach to human rights along the way – those pale against Qatar’s status as future World Cup hosts and owners of a Champions League club.

The Newcastle takeover and subsequent spending in a bid to turn the club into a Premier League and European powerhouse along the lines of Manchester City - acquired by UAE royalty just over a decade ago - could help rectify that perceived sporting imbalance for the Saudis against regional rivals Qatar.

It is also part of a broader geopolitical game between the pair; the Saudis are part of the regional blockade that was imposed on Qatar in 2017 after Doha was accused of sponsoring terrorism, and beIN reportedly threatened to withdraw support for Serie A over a plan to hold the Italian Super Cup in Saudi Arabia last year.

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Sheikh Mansour, the owner of Manchester City, is the deputy prime minister of the neighboring United Arab Emirates and a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, which partly explains why British financier Amanda Staveley, who was involved in the City takeover, is also part of the Newcastle bid envisioned by Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and nation's effective ruler.

Bin Salman and the fund will send a signal to Qatar should their plan succeed. “The Saudi involvement in the Newcastle takeover is about buying a prestige asset for state-branding purposes,” Dr Kristian Ulrichsen, of Rice University, told The Athletic.

“There is an intangible factor which the Saudis will be looking for in such an investment which is more about soft power projection, changing the image of Saudi Arabia abroad and utilising the mass appeal of football as a way to reach new constituencies.”

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The Saudi state has denied any involvement with beoutQ, but ethical issues are sounding louder than ever, too. The fiancee of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident who was murdered at the country's consulate in Istanbul in 2018, wrote an open letter to Newcastle fans yesterday.

"I know that many of you are tempted by his offer to get out of the dire situation that has crippled your club for so many years,” wrote Hatice Cengiz.

"All credible investigations have shown his responsibility. He has not been put on trial in his own country as he controls it with an iron fist.”

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Newcastle fans, who thought they had enough to worry about under the dubious guidance of current owner Mike Ashley, have been divided over the move. Many showed their allegiance to the Saudi colors when the bid was initially announced, but some are deeply unsettled by the prospect, while fan groups fear that its success could pave the way for more buyers with questionable track records to target clubs as prestige vehicles.

Qatar has also consistently come under scrutiny for a litany of reasons. In February, Al-Khelaifi was charged over an accusation of wider bribery in relation to World Cup television rights awarded to beIN for the 2026 and 2030 tournaments, and Amnesty International is calling what it sees as the abuse and exploitation of workers for the 2022 tournament a "World Cup of shame".

In any case, the muscle-flexing between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is only likely to increase, with the vast wealth that figures such as Bin Salman and Al-Khelaifi can call upon leaving the amounts being invested almost as an afterthought. The piracy enquiry could decide which nation has the next bragging rights in this cash-flashing contest.