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Newcastle United takeover: What to know about the historic Saudi Arabian-backed deal for Premier League club

Written by on October 7, 2021

A takeover of Newcastle United by a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) is complete. Its ramifications on the Premier League and beyond could be vast.

For Newcastle fans, it means an end to 14 dour years under current owner Mike Ashley and indeed the deal has been greeted with a jubilance in the north east arguably not witnessed since local boy-come-good Alan Shearer signed for a then-world record fee in the summer of 1996. However, the involvement of the PIF has brought with it the suggestion that the Magpies will serve as nothing more than a sportswashing project for the Saudi Arabian regime. 

A statement from the Premier League today confirmed: “The Premier League, Newcastle United Football Club and St James Holdings Limited have today settled the dispute over the takeover of the club by the consortium of PIF, PCP Capital Partners and RB Sports & Media.

“Following the completion of the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test, the club has been sold to the consortium with immediate effect. The legal disputes concerned which entities would own and/or have the ability to control the club following the takeover.

“All parties have agreed the settlement is necessary to end the long uncertainty for fans over the club’s ownership. The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.

“All parties are pleased to have concluded this process which gives certainty and clarity to Newcastle United Football Club and their fans.”

Here is what you need to know about this landmark moment in Premier League history.

Who is buying Newcastle?

Newcastle United are to be purchased by a consortium at a cost believed to be $408 million (£300 million). Around 80% of that sum will be provided by PIF, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. Its asset value is estimated at $430 billion. It is chaired by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As the Premier League confirmed in its statement, they have received legally binding assurances that the kingdom itself will not control the club.

Amanda Staveley, the broker behind the deal, will receive a 10% stake in the club as will London-based billionaires the Reuben brothers.

The deal will bring to an end the 14-year tenure of retail mogul Ashley at St. James’ Park. The 57-year-old bought the club for £135 million, but has been an unpopular figure on Tyneside for most of his tenure. On and off, he has been attempting to find a buyer for Newcastle since 2009.

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Why has the deal taken so long?

The consortium first struck an agreement with Ashley for Newcastle in April 2020, however, that stalled at the Premier League’s owners and directors test. At the heart of the issues that stalled the deal first time out was the issue of television piracy within Saudi Arabia, particularly relating to beIN Sports. The Qatar-based broadcaster, whose chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also president of Paris Saint-Germain, was banned in the country, however, it was widely pirated by beoutQ.

Qatar filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization in 2018 regarding Saudi Arabia’s blocking of the channel and when the PIF-led bid for Newcastle was first made beIN chief executive Yousef al-Obaidly urged Premier League chairmen to “fully interrogate” the bid, stating that the Saudi government had been involved in the “facilitation of the near three-year theft of the Premier League’s commercial rights.” The consortium ultimately withdrew amid that pressure, but retained an interest that has reignited in recent days, whilst in the meantime Newcastle and the Premier League found themselves in arbitration.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia ended its blocking of beIN Sports, in the process removing a significant hurdle that has allowed this deal to accelerate towards it conclusion.

Why is it so controversial?

The takeover of Newcastle is not without its controversy. The involvement of the PIF in a consortium does provide a degree of distance between the Saudi state itself and St. James’ Park, the fund is considered a separate legal entity. There has, however, been widespread criticism of the Premier League’s willingness to greenlight a deal so closely tied to a nation accused of human rights abuses.

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International U.K.’s CEO, said: “Ever since this deal was first talked about we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football. Saudi ownership of St. James’ Park was always as much about image management for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government, as it was about football.”

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Deshmukh is urging the Premier League to change its tests for owners and directors to consider issues of human rights. He added: “The phrase ‘human rights’ doesn’t even appear in the owners’ and directors’ test despite English football supposedly adhering to FIFA standards. We’ve sent the Premier League a suggested new human rights-compliant test and we reiterate our call on them to overhaul their standards on this.

“As with Formula One, elite boxing, golf or tennis, an association with top-tier football is a very attractive means of rebranding a country or person with a tarnished reputation. The Premier League needs to better understand the dynamic of sportswashing and tighten its ownership rules.”

A U.S. intelligence report, declassified earlier this year, stated that Bin Salman had approved the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. 

His fiancee Hatice Cengiz told the Daily Telegraph: “Only a few days after the third anniversary of Jamal’s murder, it is horrifying to learn that the Crown Prince is on the brink of getting what he wants: to wash his reputation, and sully the name of sports.”

What will this mean for the club?

In one swoop Newcastle will, in financial terms, find themselves in a different ball park to almost any other club in Europe. They are not the only team backed by sovereign wealth from the Middle East but one look at their contemporaries — PSG and Manchester City — offers a sense of the wealth that will be available to the club hierarchy. Those tasked with the day-to-day running of the club will likely have access to funds that were not available in the parsimonious latter years of Ashley’s ownership, with local media reporting last year that the new owners could be willing to sanction nearly $350 million in expenditure over the next five years.

Newcastle may not have immediately entered the Kylian Mbappe transfer sweepstakes, but they are likely to be able to add quality to a squad that has been stuck in mid-table for recent years with Joe Willock the only major addition in the summer.

There will, however, be limits to what Newcastle can do. Last year, their prospective new owners indicated they will abide by the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules of European governing body UEFA which will provide a significant limit on expenditure. For the year ending July 31, 2020, their turnover was just over $200 million; their revenue is at least half of that of the Premier League’s so-called “Big Six.” Commercial income has been particularly stagnant and remains at comparable levels now to when Ashley bought the club, not least because he has often used the club as branding for his chain of Sports Direct stores.

There is a reason why Newcastle looked to be such an attractive proposition for PIF and their backers. Newcastle are the sole team in a football-mad city whose urban area is the eighth largest in Britain with nearly a million residents. It has the eighth-largest soccer stadium in England with a capacity of 52,305 but it, like many of the club’s other facilities, is in need of modernization.

The takeover may not be welcomed by head coach Steve Bruce. He had already been coming under pressure on Tyneside with the Magpies winless in the Premier League so far this season. If the new ownership wants to ingratiate themselves with supporters then new management, beyond just changes in the dugout, would prove to be a hugely effective strategy.

What has been the reaction of Newcastle fans?

Fans are almost entirely united in their backing of the change of ownership. A Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust survey on Tuesday found that 93.8% were in favor of the takeover. This is perhaps reflective of how 14 years of life under Ashley has made the fanbase desperate for any change at all; they believe under his stewardship Newcastle failed to show ambition for anything beyond staying in the Premier League.

Newcastle may not be one of English football’s most successful clubs — they have not won the top division since 1927 nor any major honours since 1969 — but they have had a rich history and had been competing in the upper reaches of the Premier League under the likes of Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson in the years before Ashley’s takeover. Since then, they have finished higher than 10th in the Premier League only once, been relegated twice and never gone beyond the quarterfinals of a cup competition. The tycoon who arrived promising trophies and fun has offered precious little of either.

Warren Barton, a player in the swashbuckling Newcastle sides nicknamed “The Entertainers” who vied with Manchester United for Premier League titles in the mid-1990s, said: “The excitement, the relief and the pride can all be sensed in the fans thinking they’re going to get their club back. It’s been a long, long time since they felt the club cared for them as much as they care for the club.

“I’ve been on social media reaching out to people and I’ve had people crying saying all they’ve known is the time of Mike Ashley. All this fan base and city have always wanted is respect that it deserves and they haven’t had that.”

Geordie TV presenters Ant and Dec, two of the most popular figures in British entertainment, put things rather more succinctly. “Oh what a beautiful moooooorrrrrning,” they tweeted.


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