The UK sports minister has emphasised the importance of the country’s close ties with Saudi Arabia as concerns about the Gulf Kingdom’s dismal human rights record raise awkward questions as to whether its Public Investment Fund (PIF) should have been allowed to buy Newcastle United.
Nigel Huddleston’s comments to the digital, culture, media and sport select committee on Tuesday may have offered Saudi Media, one of several companies reportedly interested in purchasing Chelsea, tacit encouragement.
“The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is really important,” said Huddleston, who maintained the decision to allow PIF to purchase Newcastle was made solely by the Premier League and remained independent of a government he said was unafraid to serve as critical friends of their counterparts in Riyadh.
“Saudi Arabia is an important partner of the UK in investment, intelligence and culture. We welcome Saudi Arabian investment. Many, many jobs in the UK are dependent on our relationship with the Saudis but we take the opportunity to talk frankly and openly with Saudi Arabia. We can have frank exchanges because of the nature of our relationship.”
Nonetheless Huddleston said the sanctions imposed on Roman Abramovich by the government and Premier League in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Chelsea owner’s ties to Vladimir Putin had raised the moral bar when it comes to takeovers.
“There is a need for a far more robust Premier League owners’ and directors’ test,” said Huddleston. “The integrity element of that is something that’s being pushed.”
Although he would not divulge any government plans to implement Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review of the game, Huddleston made clear he broadly endorsed it. “We are at a turning point in English football,” he said. “We recognise there are failures in the structure and governance of English football and the fan-led review is pivotally important because it will contain an independent regulator.”
Helen MacNamara, the Premier League’s director of policy and corporate affairs, said England’s top-tier clubs did not want a statutory independent regulator and pointed out there had been no owners’ and directors’ test when Abramovich bought Chelsea.
“We already have an independent panel, chaired by a QC who oversees our sanctioning regime, and we’re in the process of putting together an independent panel that will support the Premier League board and scrutinise their decision-making on the owners’ and directors’ test,” she said.
Huddleston expects Russia to remain a global sporting “pariah” for some time. The country’s football clubs and national teams have been suspended from all competitions by Fifa and Uefa, and Daniil Medvedev, the world No 1 men’s tennis player, is facing exclusion from key tournaments, Wimbledon included.
“As long as Russia continues to be a pariah on the world stage, those sanctions will last,” said Huddleston as the court of arbitration for sport upheld Uefa’s ban on Russian teams as it continues to deliberate on the matter. “The reasons these sporting sanctions matter is because Putin loves nothing better than wrapping himself in the flag and putting himself on the world stage.
“I think it’s going to be quite a while before we accept Russia back on to the world sporting stage. I think we can manage perfectly well without Russian investment. I don’t think welcoming it at the moment is morally acceptable.”
Asked whether Medvedev would be allowed to compete at Wimbledon this year, Huddleston said he was “in discussions” with the All England Club regarding Russian players. “Absolutely no one flying the Russian flag should be allowed or enabled,” he said. “We need assurances they’re not supporters of Vladimir Putin. There are also visa implications.”