A Dismal Human Rights Record Hasn't Stopped Saudi 'Sportswashing.' But Content Piracy Might | Opinion

It's a sad sign of the times when broadcast rights are deemed more important than human rights.

At some point this month, the wealthiest soccer league in the world, the English Premier League, must decide whether to allow a $350 million takeover by Saudi Arabia of one of its most famous clubs.

The purchase of 127-year-old Newcastle United would be a huge feather in the "sportswashing" cap of the country's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), whose sovereign wealth fund stands to get an 80 percent stake in the business.

MBS has for years been using the glamour of sport to wash away the stains on his reputation caused by his country's appalling human rights record—even reportedly trying to buy the most famous soccer club in the world, Manchester United.

But if he fails in his bid to buy Newcastle it will not be because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, or the two-year-long detention of women's rights activists, or the five-year bombing campaign in Yemen that has left 100,000 dead.

If the Premier League refused permission for rulers with poor human rights records to buy English soccer clubs, the United Arab Emirates' deputy prime minister, Sheikh Mansour, would not have been allowed to purchase Manchester City in 2008.

No, the only thing that can stop MBS now is Saudi Arabia's reputation as a haven for modern-day pirates.

Like some swashbuckling buccaneer of yesteryear, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia glories in sports and innovation events even as companies operating in Saudi, allegedly including some with ties to men in his inner circle, go stealing intellectual property from all before them, notably in pharmaceuticals and the broadcast industry.

It led to Riyadh last week being blacklisted for the second year running by the U.S. government, with the desert kingdom appearing on "Priority Watch List", a rogue's gallery of the worst piracy offenders in the world.

With China, Russia and Venezuela also targeted, MBS is in good company, but this is not something America takes lightly.

According to one official at the Office of the United States Trade Representative, which drew up the 93-page report, IP-intensive industries "support 45.5 million jobs and contribute to approximately 30 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product."

Among the detailed submissions to USTR boss Robert E. Lighthizer about Saudi piracy were some of the biggest rights-holders in the sports industry, including FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and... the Premier League.

That's right, the same Premier League that is now being asked to decide whether MBS is a fit and proper owner of a major English soccer club, was three months ago writing letters to the U.S. authorities imploring them to blacklist Saudi Arabia because the piracy posed a "significant risk" to its revenue.

The fear is that if increasing numbers of sports fans are able to watch matches for free on streaming services then the amount that rights holders are willing to pay organizations like the Premier League is going to go down.

Piracy was a key factor in Sky reducing its payment to the Premier League in 2018 for broadcasting rights for the next three seasons, which went down from £4.1 billion to £3.6 billion, a 12.1 percent fall.

The problem of what to do with Riyadh arose in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia led a trade boycott of its neighbor, Qatar, where the region's main rights-holder, beIN Sports, is based.

Decoder boxes sold by beIN Sports were banned in Saudi Arabia, but Saudis managed to get around the problem by pirating the Qatari channel's content instead.

Over the following months and years the crown jewels of sport—from the 2018 FIFA World Cup to the UEFA Champions League, Formula One and Wimbledon—were stolen.

The Premier League, of course, was not spared, and tried to fight back, making no less than nine legal attempts to get the rogue channel, called beoutQ, shut down.

The Saudi government has repeatedly denied any relationship to beoutQ, but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the majority shareholder in Arabsat, the satellite channel which beoutQ was broadcast on right up until August. The pirate channel now switched to streaming, but it's hard to believe MBS, given his vast personal power, wouldn't be able to constrain the channel's activity, if he chose to.

But instead, the piracy continued despite protests from FIFA, UEFA, Sky, the BBC, and the European Commission—with the case even being taken to the World Trade Organisation.

But Saudi Arabia did what it normally does: ignoring public opinion, ignoring international law, and doing whatever it likes.

Which is actually the opposite of what Britain ostensibly stands for, with its respect for international law and sense of fair play.

Yet the British government, despite claiming to want to clamp down on the theft of intellectual property, does not want to fall out with a valuable trading partner and so has passed everything to the Premier League.

If the "owner's and director's test" is what the Saudi bid stands and falls on, then according to the damning letter the Premier League sent to the U.S. authorities on February 5, it fails on both accounts.

The first question is whether a crime has been committed which would be a crime in the U.K. The ongoing piracy scandals and the Premier League letter would suggest there has.

The second is whether or not the Saudis have been dishonest. Despite numerous tech investigations repeatedly pointing the finger at them and despite numerous legal challenges, they are yet to accept any responsibility at all—literally going as far as the other side of the world to find a scapegoat, blaming Colombians. So the answer would also seem to be yes.

In short, Saudi Arabia's failure to come clean about piracy (which beIN Sports claims has cost it a billion dollars) makes it unfit for a Newcastle takeover.

The Premier League letter is brimming with such frustration at its powerlessness to stop Saudi piracy that it would be nonsensical for it to now wave everything through with the situation unresolved.

For any takeover to be considered, the piracy must first be stopped.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of The Daily Mail.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​