This is no surprise: in football there is not fit and proper person test

By Tony Attwood

In football we hear about it all the time: the fit and proper person’s test.  And we gather that since he is at the helm of Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour is a fit and proper person.  I am sure that is right.

But it seems Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the de facto operator of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is seemingly under suspicion for not being a fit and proper person, and that is apparently holding up the purchase of Newcastle United FC.

Not that this bothers Mike Ashley too much.  He bought the club for £135m and is said to be selling it for $370m which is about £300m.  The Saudis have put down a £17m non-refundable deposit, so if they pull out of the deal, Mr Ashley gets to keep that, as well keeping a club now worth twice as much as it was when he bought it.

But the whole thing is dragging on a bit, and we keep hearing about the “Fit and Proper Person’s Test” being the hold up.  Which is a bit strange since there is no Fit and Proper Person’s Test in the rules of the Premier League, despite the media constantly referring to it.  (Media referring to something that doesn’t exist????  Whatever next!!!)

However in 2004 there was introduced the “Owners’ and Directors’ Test” which applies to all clubs in the Premier League, English Football League, National League, Isthmian League, Northern Premier League, Southern Football League, WSL and Women’s Championship.  And that’s probably what the media is talking about.  (This research lark is such a pesky business.)

The idea of the test is for the owners, directors and officers of clubs in those leagues to meet standards greater than that required under law so as to protect the reputation and image of the game. (Clearly there is not such a test for organisations running refereeing!)  But it is not run by the FA – the The Premier League and English Football League administer the Test for clubs in their leagues.

And there is no arbitration about the way the test is run, or the findings of any tribunal, beyond the league itself.  If a person were to be turned down, she or he would appeal to the body that turned the individual down!  A bit like refereeing in fact.

The rules of the Test for the Premier League clubs appears in the Premier League handbook which runs to 338 pages of A4, and deals with the test under section F1.  All of the rules are about the individual who is to be a director of the club, which is interesting because all the chatter in the media is about Newcastle being owned by the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.   However the rules say that  the person who is deemed to own the organisation running the club is the person who has to meet the requirements of section F1.  So that is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Now there is a problem here because the British government doesn’t have a fit and proper person test when it comes to buying oil although as it happens only 3% of the UK’s oil comes from Saudi Arabia most of it coming via pipeline from Norway. The USA, Nigeria, Algeria and Russia are the other main suppliers to Britain – although a major new field was discovered in southern England in 2015.

But for now that 3% of our oil from Saudi Arabia is important, which is about 48,000 barrels of oil per day.  But more importantly from Britain’s point of view Britain exported goods exports to Saudi Arabia in 2017 valued at about £4.2 billion, whereas imports from Saudi Arabia were worth £2.4 billion. So the UK had a surplus of £1.8 billion in goods trade. Not something we want to lose.

Thus if anyone said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was not a “fit and proper person” to run a football club he could (and quite possibly would) stop all purchases from the UK.  He’s a very rich autocrat so he can do that.  Forget human rights in Saudi Arabia, forget the torture, public floggings etc.  It’s about trade.

So somehow the League has to find a way of saying there is nothing in the rule book to stop the Crown Prince from having influence over a director of Newcastle (which as the Crown Prince he clearly would).

He could be stopped from being a director if he were (law F.1.11) subject to a suspension or ban from involvement in the administration of a sport by any ruling body of a sport that is recognised by the
International Olympic Committee, UK Sport, or Sport England…” but he isn’t.

He has not been declared bankrupt and is not “subject to any form of suspension, disqualification or striking-off by a professional body” such as the Law Society, the Institute of Chartered
Accountants of England and Wales etc etc.

He has not been found guilty under Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, nor any rules in force from time to time in relation to the prohibition on betting on football (whether in England or Wales
or elsewhere).

There are some other bits like that, but the fact is that to be banned from owning a club the Crown Prince has to have personally been involved in one of a number of offences, and overseeing a state that uses torture, refusing basic human rights to women are not on the list.  Nor is permitting his country to run a TV station that takes encoded football channels, decodes them and makes them free to air without a licence.

If the League do find a way to stop Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud from being de-facto owner of Newcastle United, the ruling is going to make very interesting reading, because there are one or two other people who might then also be caught up in the same issue.

It all seems very unlikely, but we await the outcome with some interest.