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Saudi Arabian Football Federation writes to major sports bodies after WTO report

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Saudi Arabian Football Federation writes to major sports bodies after WTO report

A proposed £300m Newcastle takeover deal is 80% financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has written to major sports bodies acknowledging it has a “responsibility” to help fight broadcasting piracy.

In what could be a highly significant attempt to reassure its critics and break the deadlock over the country’s controversial takeover of Newcastle United, the governing body insists it “understands the need to protect and respect intellectual property rights”.

It comes in the wake of a landmark report by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which concluded the country had failed to do enough to combat the issue in relation to the broadcaster beoutQ.

It has been accused of illegally broadcasting a range of professional sport in the Middle East, including Premier League action.

In correspondence sent to Uefa, and seen by the BBC, SAFF president Yasser Hassan Almisehal wrote: “Sporting rights are the lifeblood, which feed the future not just of elite clubs, but of the entire sporting pyramid.

“With our sporting ambition comes a responsibility to help [fight] piracy and as a nation we already have the rigorous governance framework to do just that.”

He added that Saudi Arabia is aiming to be a “true partner of sport around the world” that “abides by the ethics and morals Fifa believes in so deeply.”

According to sources close to the SAFF, Almisehal has also written to the Premier League, football’s world governing body Fifa and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) offering similar assurances.

In what could be a further attempt to convince the Premier League to approve the Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United, the country has also pledged to crack down on hundreds of websites illegally streaming broadcasts.

In a statement, the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property said it “aims to block 231 websites that violate regulations and rights” including those “directly broadcasting sites of encrypted sports channels”.

What is the latest with the takeover?

The proposed £300m Newcastle takeover deal is 80% financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), whose chairman is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It is awaiting approval via the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test, which looks into the background of prospective club owners. Premier League lawyers have been assessing the deal for two months.

In April the government indicated it would not intervene, saying it was a matter for the Premier League.

In its judgement last week, the WTO found Saudi Arabia had facilitated the beoutQ operation and “acted in a manner inconsistent” with international law protecting intellectual property rights.

The WTO also called for the country to “bring its measures into conformity with its obligations” under international law.

In his letter to Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin, Almisehal said the SAFF was “heartened and encouraged” by the WTO’s finding that Saudi Arabia was taking “action which it considered necessary for the protection of its essential security interests”, and which the panel “found to be justified under WTO rules”.

The rights to show English top-flight games in the Middle East belong to Qatar-based beIN Sports, which is in the middle of a three-year deal with the Premier League worth £400m.

Saudi Arabia has always denied aiding the beoutQ operation and insists there is no link between its government and the alleged piracy.

The Premier League, Fifa, Uefa, La Liga and the Bundesliga have all tried to bring about proceedings in Saudi courts, but have been blocked by the country’s government.

Separately, Saudi Arabia has been accused of “sportswashing” – a term used to describe countries that try to improve their international reputation by investing in major teams or hosting big sporting events.

But these accusations have been rebuffed by the Saudi government, which claims it wants to get more of its people engaged in sport.

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