Saudi Arabia-led consortium completes Newcastle United takeover

Takeover of English Premier League club had collapsed last year amid concerns about Saudi human rights abuses and piracy.

The takeover ends the 14-year ownership by British retail tycoon Mike Ashley, who has been widely viewed as a figure of scorn in the one-club city [Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters]

English Premier League football club Newcastle United have been taken over by a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium, the league said, after a protracted takeover and legal fight involving concerns about piracy and rights abuses in the kingdom.

“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,” the Premier League said in a statement on Thursday.

“Following the completion of the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ Test, the club has been sold to the consortium with immediate effect.”

The 300-million-pound ($409m) takeover by the Saudi Public Investment Fund collapsed last year over concerns about how much control the kingdom’s leadership would have in the running of Newcastle amid concerns about Saudi human rights abuses and the pirating of sports rights.

Amnesty International has warned that the takeover represents “sportswashing” of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.

PIF has had to offer assurances to the Premier League that its chairman, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and in turn the state will not have any control of the running of Newcastle.

“We are extremely proud to become the new owners of Newcastle United, one of the most famous clubs in English football,” PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan said.

“We thank the Newcastle fans for their tremendously loyal support over the years and we are excited to work together with them.”

The PIF will be the majority partner alongside wealthy British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley.

The takeover ends the 14-year ownership by British retail tycoon Mike Ashley, who has been widely viewed as a figure of scorn in the one-club city, whose St James’ Park stadium is affectionately dubbed “the cathedral on the hill”.

His ownership has been marked by chronic underinvestment in the playing squad, his use of Newcastle as a vehicle to promote his business interests, and a general lack of ambition despite the club attracting regular home crowds of more than 50,000.

Newcastle has not won a major trophy since the 1955 FA Cup and its last league title was in 1927.

The northeast English club will be seeking a transformation in the same manner enjoyed by Manchester City in 2008 after its takeover by another Middle Eastern entity — Abu Dhabi. Staveley, who brokered the City takeover, is also fronting the Saudi takeover of Newcastle.

Protracted bid

It is four years since Staveley attempted to buy Newcastle. The most recent bid collapsed last year amid legal battles.

A key impediment to the takeover was the piracy in Saudi Arabia of sports broadcasts by Qatari-owned beIN – including of Premier League games. Saudi Arabia declared beIN illegal in 2017 as the nation launched a wider economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar alongside the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain over accusations Doha supports “terrorism”.

Qatar vehemently denied the allegations. The dispute was resolved in January.

It was reported on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia was set to lift its ban on beIN and had also promised to close pirate websites.

The ban had led to a piracy operation, which the World Trade Organization said was facilitated by the Saudis, rebroadcasting beIN feeds via a renegade BeOut Q service.

The Premier League was among the sports organisations that protested against the pirating of its games by the Saudi-linked operation. That contributed to the world’s richest football league being unable to approve a takeover of Newcastle last year by the PIF.

Newcastle was challenging the Premier League’s decision not to approve the takeover at a Competition Appeals Tribunal whose latest hearing was last week.

‘Sportswashing’

Amnesty International wrote to league chief executive Richard Masters to say the takeover could be exploited by Saudi Arabia to cover up “deeply immoral” breaches of international law, citing human rights violations and the role of the crown prince.

Amnesty raised concerns with Masters about the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after US intelligence services said they believe the slaying came at the crown prince’s orders. The kingdom has denied that.

Agnes Callamard, a UN special rapporteur who authored an inquiry into the killing, called for sanctions on Crown Prince Mohammed and said responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing falls on Saudi Arabia. The report found “sufficient credible evidence regarding the responsibility of the Crown Prince demanding further investigation”.

Commenting on the completed takeover of Newcastle United, Amnesty’s head of campaigns in the UK, Felix Jakens, told the AFP news agency that “today’s decision shows that English football is open for business when it comes to sportswashing”.

“Ever since this deal was first talked about, Amnesty have said it represents a very clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record using the glamour of the Premier League.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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