After 18 month of deadlock, Newcastle United FC finally has new owners – to the delight of the majority of fans, the much maligned Mike Ashley has gone. His replacements are an investor group consisting of Saudi Arabia’s “Sovereign Wealth Fund” and “Public Investment Fund” (PIF), real-estate tycoons David and Simon Ruben (“the Ruben Brothers”), and businesswoman Amanda Stavely, who has a history of negotiating deals for large Middle-Eastern investors. The takeover is worth some £300 million (US$490 million).
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the PIF, expressed delight at the deal: “We are extremely proud to become the new owners of Newcastle United, one of the most famous clubs in English football,” he said. “We thank the Newcastle fans for their tremendously loyal support over the years and we are excited to work together with them.”
Al-Rumayyan is not wrong about Newcastle being a special club. Despite the fact that they have not won a trophy since 1955 and are without a league title since 1927, Newcastle fans remain among the most passionate in England. Crowds of over 50,000 regularly pack St. James’ park stadium, creating an atmosphere that can rival any in the world on its day.
The takeover has been a long-drawn-out saga, plagued by legal disputes between the buyers and the English Premier League (in which Newcastle United plays). In July 2020, the takeover failed to clear the Premier League’s “Owners and Directors Test,” due to concerns over the degree of separation between the PIF and the Saudi State. Under the previous deal, the PIF was set to own an 80 percent stake in the club, which is also known as The Magpies.
The Premier League’s alleged concerns were partially related to the raft of human rights violations for which the Saudi State is culpable.
The Premier League’s alleged concerns were partially related to the raft of human rights violations for which the Saudi State is culpable—from the ill-treatment of Saudi women and political dissidents, to the war in Yemen and the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, the primary impediment to the deal concerned a complaint filed by Qatar with the World Trade Organization in 2018, claiming that Saudi Arabia was blocking BeIN, a Qatari broadcasting company linked to Al Jazeera and which holds the rights to show Premier League matches, from broadcasting on its territory.
Doha also accused Saudi Arabia of failing to take effective action against the alleged pirating of BeIN content by an organization named BeoutQ. The allegations led to Saudi Arabia becoming embroiled in a US$1 billion investment arbitration with BeIN.
BeIN’s CEO, Yousef Al-Obaidly, wrote to the chairmen and owners of other Premier League clubs last year, blaming Saudi Arabia for “the facilitation of the near three-year theft of the Premier League’s commercial rights.” As a Premier League rights holder, BeIN’s influence in English football is not insignificant, and these efforts were to successfully block the Newcastle takeover from going through in 2020.
But money talks, and the Saudi regime did what it had to do to allay the concerns of BeIN and its associates. The Kingdom has since reversed the restrictions on BeIN and banned the pirate broadcaster BeoutQ. Riyadh has also committed to blocking any other pirate stations BeIN reports in the future.
While the primary legal obstacle had been removed, there remained concerns about the closeness of the PIF – chaired by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) – to the Saudi State. The Premier League insists that it has assurances over these matters that cleared the way for the takeover, more than the resolving of the copyright dispute with Qatar. MBS himself has been conspicuous by his absence in the negotiations, and this distancing of the Crown Prince from the deal may explain why it is suddenly being looked upon more favorably. Many have alleged MBS’ involvement in multiple human rights violations, including the widespread accusation that the Crown Prince personally ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
In many quarters there remains deep skepticism that MBS has truly distanced himself from the deal.
However, in many quarters there remains deep skepticism that MBS has truly distanced himself and his US$300 billion in wealth from the deal. Groups such as Amnesty International have long warned against the dangers of figures such as MBS and states such as Saudi Arabia being able to “sportswash” their reputations by associating themselves with glamorous football clubs.
In a statement, Amnesty’s Chief Executive, Sacha Deshmukh, responded to the news of the takeover with scorn: “Instead of allowing those implicated in serious human violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets, we’ve urged the Premier League to change the ‘Owners and Directors Test’ to address human rights issues,” he said.
Amnesty’s head of campaigns in the UK, Felix Jakens, used yet stronger language in his condemnation of the Premier League’s U-turn. “[This] decision shows that English football is open for business when it comes to sportswashing,” Jakens told the AFP. “Ever since this deal was first talked about, Amnesty [has] 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.”
“[This] decision shows that English football is open for business when it comes to sportswashing.”
To the jubilant crowds gathered outside St. James’ Park stadium, however, none of this matters very much. Most Magpie fans will simply be glad to see the back of Mike Ashley, whose premiership has been marred by chronic underinvestment in players and accusations that he viewed the club merely as a vehicle to promote his business interests. If the new owners can finally bring success back to Newcastle, the human rights concerns will likely be forgotten by the majority of fans and the media alike. Sportwashing is set to have its day again.