Premier League stall on Newcastle United takeover as pressure builds to reject the Saudi backed deal
A consortium, lead by Amanda Staveley and confirmed to have the backing of not only the Ruben brothers (the second richest family in Britain) but also the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), are on the verge of wrestling Newcastle United away from Mike Ashley.
News broke early on the morning of Tuesday 14th April that the historic deal was all systems go after a flurry of activity in Companies House as registrations of new Directors and relationships between companies kicked into motion. Key amongst them, a ‘Details of Charge’ document that formally tied a binding relationship between PCP Capital Partners (Staveley’s company) and St James Holdings Limited (the part of Mike Ashley’s empire that holder Newcastle United). Upon further investigation it became clear that not only was there a firm relationship now between the parties but that a deposit for the club had been paid by the buyers, to the tune of £17m.
In the frenzy of speculation and media activity that followed news was eventually confirmed on Sky Sports that a deal was ‘agreed in principle’ and that subject to the mandatory checks required by the Premier League the deal would go through, valuing the club at around £300m.
And, whilst you'd think that would be the hard work done, it wouldn't be Newcastle United without more drama to unfold.
Staveley and her team had prepared and submitted a 350 page document as part of the submission under what is called the Premier League Owners and Directors test. With her experience of delivering a similar takeover, that of Manchester City ten years ago, she has trodden this path before. And that may prove just as well, given the unprecedented scrutiny that has now followed.
For the involvement of the Saudis has caused nothing but a barrage of criticism and, more tellingly, open and explicit requests for the Premier League to block the takeover.
For those Newcastle fans watching it makes mostly baffling, but sometimes disturbing reading.
Amnesty International write to the Premier League asking them to seriously consider the Human Rights record in Saudi Arabia.
BeIN Sports write an e-mail to the Premier League urging them to reject the takeover, stating that the Saudi Government had been complicit in broadcasting piracy that had damaged their purchase of Premier League TV coverage in the Middle East. They also wrote to all Premier League clubs stating "the potential acquirer of Newcastle United caused huge damage to your club's and the Premier League's commercial revenues". Whilst few would deny that the Saudis have been less than helpful in tackling piracy in the region, there is also a political undertone to this letter. The channel being underpinned by on of Saudi Arabia's biggest enemies in the region, Qatar (who also own PSG). The less said about Richard Keys at this point the better, although it would be remiss of us not to point out that during one of his 'shows' the day before the letter was issued he introduced the subject as 'I wish it wasn't Newcastle the Saudis wanted to buy, I wish it was any other club'.
In a letter penned on behalf of the fiancee of murdered reporter Jamal Khashoggi, lawyers appealed directly to Richard Masters (Chief Executive, Premier League) to block the takeover, stating; "It is undoubtedly the right, proper and lawful action for you and the Permier League to take, especially in the light of the ruthless killing of Ms Cengiz's fiancee". There is a belief in some quarters that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), ruler and heir to the throne on Saudi Arabia, had a direct influence in the killing. Whilst in Saudi this has been strenuously denied, with officials stating that a 'rouge element' was responsible for this murder that took place in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Indeed official have long since stated they have taken action to punish those responsible and have sentenced 5 people to death and sent a further 3 to prison for the killing. You'll need to do your own research on this one as the whole episode is utterly horrifying.
Next it was the turn of the Guardian newspaper to break news under the headline 'Newcastle takeover in serious doubt as WTO rules pirate TV channel is Saudi'. The revelation actually turned out to be referring to a previous document sent to the Premier League, consisting 130 pages, that allegedly sets out a clear link between the channel referred to by BeIN sports (beoutQ) and Saudi Arabia. The article confirms the document was sent to the Premier League some two weeks ago. No doubt the Premier League were already looking t this one. Quite how this relates to the O&D test would only be either through any direct involvement of the individuals names (not likely), through the source of the PIF fund money (unlikely to show a direct link) or should the submitted documents as part of the takeover be misleading or untrue in any statement made about piracy (either in the original document of subsequent clarifications).
The release of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) investigation into piracy issues in Saudi Arabia was released. The report was scathing in its condemnation of past indiscretions in the country clearly setting out that it believed that KSA had not done all it could to stop illegal broadcasting of content, such as Premier League football, from its territory. Whilst at headline level the report seemed extremely damaging for any prospect of Newcastle United takeover, upon further examination there were certainly some positives (if you can call them such). The first was that no-one related to PIF or those bidding for NUFC were named or referenced in the findings. The second was that the report fell short of saying the KSA administration has behind the piracy, more that it hadn't come down hard enough on those who were responsible.
A letter was sent from the Saudi Minister of Commerces (also a senior PIF member) to governments across the globe, including our own Secretary of State for International Trade, the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP. In this letter KSA spell out that they believe the WTO reported completely vindicated their position on piracy and that if any nation had an issue with piracy before this date they only have to 'send us an e-mail'. For anyone who ever read the WTO report, this hardly feels like an appropriate response.
The UK confirmed it would now lift the embargo on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. With all sales having been suspended from the 20 June 2018 following a court ruling which implicated UK armaments in the killing of civilians in the Yemen, the ruling was seen as a landmark in trade relations between the UK and KSA and reaffirmed their previous relationship as strong allies, with the two Nations very much open for business.
Appearing on Good Morning Britain, host Piers Morgan asked the fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi for her views on the proposed takeover of Newcastle United. Her response: "For the fans, I want to say, if Mike Ashley's tenure has been like a bad dream, for them the Crown Prince will be like a nightmare". Hatice Cangiz had been invited onto the programme to discuss the newly imposed sanction the UK had placed on, amongst other things, those deemed responsible for her fiancee's death.
Saudi Arabia passes more anti-piracy laws into legislation. A memorandum passed by the ruling Prince places further prohibitions on the streaming of movies and sports in the region. The documents outlines a number of further steps that will also be introduced to address the issues, including awareness campaigns, the tightening of process and procedures, training and enforcement. The measures can only be seen as a positive step by those shining a spotlight on Saudi Arabia for their previous issues.
On this day KSA announced that findings of their High Court would permanently suspend the right of BeIN to broadcast in the Kingdom. The move was justified on the basis that BeIN were a monopolistic broadcaster and were also fined 10 million riyals (approximately £2.5m). Quite what this meant for the takeover was unclear, but with PIF and those bidding for the club apparently not informed this was about to happen, and with this leaving the Nation with no legitimate means of watching Premier League football, it certainly felt significant.
And when you add in the pressure that is reportedly being applied from a number of currently Premier League clubs, who perhaps have their own selfish reasons not to want a rejuvenated Newcastle United throwing its financial muscle around not just England but Europe, you can see why this is quite the puzzle for the Premier League.
For certain the lawyers fees related to this application will be greater than any Owners and Directors test that has gone before. And you feel which ever way it goes the Premier League are going to lose something.
Not for one minute can you contemplate a proud nation like the Saudis taking kindly to being 'rejected' by the Premier League. Not when you consider the money and investment they plough into the UK. Their relationship with the UK government is as uncomfortable as it is fiscally necessary (we'll not bore you with pictures of MBS with the Queen or the Prime Minister, or other world leaders - you get the point).
On the other side of the coin the introduction of Gary Hoffman as the new Chairman of the Premier League could add an interesting twist. The thought of new lorry loads of foreign wealth sloshing its way into his League will not be lost on the former Investment Banker.
The other issue for the Premier League, of course, is that it is not MBS who is applying to be on he Board at Newcastle. Representation here will be in the form of Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF, whilst there is also likely to be a permanent Saudi UK resident on the Board too. This gives the Premier League a huge headache, as for all it's rules, the only one they can really turn to in stopping the deal is probably this:
Meaning that the Board will have to provide their 'opinion' that either a potential Saudi Director, of the source of its money, would break the rules. Do they have the stomach to take on that legal minefield of essentially being the only organisation in the world to accuse and hold judgement of wrongdoing, indirectly, on the Crown Prince. Strong stuff. That is, of course, unless they change the rules mid process. And no-one can see that happening.
For Newcastle fans it feels very much like hunting for the end of a rainbow right now. Is there to be a pot of gold at the end of all of this?
4 weeks, the Premier Leagues indicative maximum timescale, has come and gone. #cans have been placed on ice to the point of freezing. What would have been joy will now perhaps be relief when all this is done and the polls are clear...
97% of those surveyed in a recent fans forum were in favour of a deal that would see Newcastle not just transformed, but would make the Magpies the richest club in the world.
If those dreams did come true then that is a subject for another day. For now, we all just want this to be over!