*This article was last updated on July 20, 2020
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has not taken an interest in Newcastle for its cheap beer and sausage rolls. Instead the billionaire prince has declared his intention to purchase Newcastle United Football Club (nicknamed the Magpies). Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), consisting of around US$380 billion, will cover the costs. The deal is a good move for MbS.
The Prince’s intentions are threefold. One, to use the club as an investment – a cash cow for himself and the Saudi state. Second, Gulf leaders see football as an opportunity to sanitize or “sports-wash” their public image by associating themselves with a game beloved by the world. Finally, the money the PIF can pour into Newcastle United can be used to buy on-field success that will allow the Saudi government to flex its financial muscles and demonstrate its power.
When it comes to football club ownership, Saudi Arabia currently lags behind its Gulf rivals.
When it comes to football club ownership, Saudi Arabia currently lags behind its Gulf rivals. Over the past two decades, Arab billionaires have purchased European football clubs such as Hull City, Malaga, and Everton. By far the most significant acquisitions have been Paris St. Germain (PSG), bought by Qatari royalty in 2011, and Manchester City, owned by the UAE’s Sheikh Mansour since September 2008. While the takeover of football by criminal enterprises and private individuals in previous eras was worrying enough, nowadays Europe’s biggest clubs are owned outright by foreign states. The table is already set and the Saudis simply want to join in.
Saudi Arabia has the second largest oil reserves in the world, making Newcastle United potentially the richest club in the world. According to one estimate, the Saudi royal family — which has around 15,000 members — is worth up to US$1.4 trillion.
It is fitting that MbS wants to buy the Magpies, as the magpie is the animal whose lifestyle most resembles his own. The crafty black-and-white birds are known for collecting and hoarding shiny objects, often becoming violent in order to protect their treasure. MbS too is known for his lavish materialism and has offered around US$400 million for Newcastle United.
To put this in perspective, this is less than he once spent on a single painting – around US$450 million for Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Jesus Christ.” A US$500 million super-yacht and a US$300 million French Chateau – alleged to be the most expensive house in the world – are among the other modest bits and bobs stashed in his nest. A Premier League club will make the perfect finishing touch.
Despite his obscene wealth, “sports-washing” MbS’ reputation will not be easy. Saudi Arabia is a country much maligned for its militarism, religious fundamentalism, and human rights abuses. To list just a few of the myriad atrocities, the kingdom routinely executes more people than any other country and is carrying out a harrowing air-war in Yemen that has driven hundreds of thousands into famine and disease.
Then there is the widely reported murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in December 2018, an act for which MbS is widely held responsible. MbS’ brutal crackdown on domestic dissent has also been widely publicized, as have his (largely exaggerated) steps towards so-called “modernization.” Suffice it to say, the prince is a major player on the world stage and you would have to be living in a remote, tribal community not to be familiar with him. Understandably many Newcastle fans have never heard of him.
While MbS is a big fan of flogging, the modern football supporter is more into blogging and vlogging.
While MbS is a big fan of flogging, the modern football supporter is more into blogging and vlogging. The internet is full of bewildered members of Newcastle’s army of fans, barely containing their excitement, desperately trying to figure out who this bloke is and whether he really has £280 billion. This proves that football can be educational.
MbS’ takeover of Newcastle United is being brokered by Amanda Staveley, a Dubai-based British businesswoman and “deal maker” who is bankrolled by some of the Middle East’s wealthiest men. Staveley famously organized Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition of Manchester City and intends to work the same magic for MbS.
In October 2019, Staveley flew to MbS’ US$500 million mega-yacht, the Serene, to organize the deal for the Magpies. Under the agreement reached, Staveley’s own firm, PCP Partners, would own 10 percent of the club. The Reuben brothers – members of Britain’s second richest family, worth £18.7 billion ($23.5 billion) – would own another 10 percent. MbS would claim the remaining 80 percent, giving him a controlling stake.
PCP partners would likely be in charge of most of the day-to-day running of the club and it is unlikely that MbS would be a hands-on sort of chairman, the kind who gets on the microphone before games to motivate the players and the crowd. In reality, he may not need to do very much.
MbS is set to take over from the much-maligned Mike Ashley, a retail tycoon who is generally accepted to have ruined Newcastle United during his 13 years as chairman. As the man who had the gall to rename the iconic St. James’ Park Stadium “the Sports Direct Arena” after the company he owns, many supporters feel that Ashley used the club as little more than an advertising hoarding for his retail empire, whilst putting in the absolute minimum amount of investment needed to keep the Premier League’s eye-watering TV money rolling in. After all, there is no bigger billboard than televised European football.
MbS is set to take over from the much-maligned Mike Ashley, a retail tycoon who is generally accepted to have ruined Newcastle United during his 13 years as chairman.
On the face of it, MbS could not be more different than the hard-drinking, fast-living Ashley. Ashley certainly seems more fun, although, as he is the owner of Sports Direct, the Crown Prince probably has a better record on workers’ rights. Besides, in defense of Newcastle fans’ willingness to overlook MbS’ crimes, many of them would be willing to accept a bid from Lucifer himself if it meant finally seeing the back of Ashley. To their credit, many fans have been highlighting MbS’ human rights record online, but overall, football supporters are willing to forgive a lot if it means a return to winning ways for their team.
The success of clubs like PSG and Manchester City has been undeniably impressive since they were taken over by Gulf royalty. PSG now dominates French football with an all-star team that threatens to become European champions each year. Across the English Channel, Manchester City has been transformed. Once little more than the minnow neighbors of the world-famous Manchester United, City is now arguably the biggest club in England. The team has dominated English football over the last decade and won eight of the last ten domestic trophies.
If MbS is hoping that Newcastle United will serve him in a similar way, it will not be plain sailing. The club does have an enormous fanbase, one of the biggest stadiums in the country, and a good degree of international name recognition. Despite this, the fact remains that the club has not won any domestic silverware since the 1950s. However, if there is anyone with the money to do it, it is the House of Saud.
In the end, there is still a chance the deal may be called off. The Premier League’s “owners and directors test” has been beefed up in recent years, following the wave of Chinese investment. After Southampton owner Gao Jisheng admitted to having bribed officials in the past, a clause was added to the test requiring anyone wishing to buy a Premier League club to disclose the details of all previous financial dealings. This is not the kind of thing that would sit well with MbS. Even worse for the prince, is another new clause that stipulates that crimes committed in another state, even if not prosecuted there, can be grounds for disqualification.
If football is seriously concerned about its moral image, it is difficult to think of a clearer line in the sand than a Saudi takeover of a Premier League Club.
If football is seriously concerned about its moral image (don’t laugh), it is difficult to think of a clearer line in the sand than a Saudi takeover of a Premier League Club, as part of the increasing Gulf-domination of the sport at large. As Kate Allen, UK Director of Amnesty International, wrote in a letter to the Premier League’s Chief Executive Richard Masters on April 21, 2020: “Unless the Premier League pauses and looks seriously at the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia it risks becoming a patsy – a willing dupe of those trying to sports wash their abysmal human rights records.”
Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi also implores the Premier League to think twice. In Cengiz’s view, to allow the deal to go through would categorically demonstrate that MbS is above the law. “[MbS] is desperately trying to use these types of deals to repair his image,” she said. “If the UK and the Premier League accept him, it shows other countries he is now accepted.”
But MbS need not worry. Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the United Kingdom, and Westminster will be keen to avoid a diplomatic earthquake. The UK has sold the Arab Kingdom billions of dollars’ worth of arms in recent years – largely to be used against the people of Yemen – and MbS has even shaken hands with Queen Elizabeth II. Furthermore, the prince is offering a substantial investment into the UK economy during the worst economic contraction in the country’s history.
And then there is our friend Amanda Staveley. In 2008, Staveley was intimately involved in bringing Sheikh Mansour to Barclays Bank, a firm which, not incidentally, is the chief corporate sponsor of the Premier League. At the time, Barclays executives were desperately trying to raise the funds to avoid being part-nationalized and received the majority of the cash they needed from Sheikh Mansour and Qatari investors, all of which was overseen by Staveley. She was paid £30 million ($38 million) for her trouble and is in the process of suing for more. Rest assured that this debt remains on the minds of all concerned.
So, to wrap up, there is hope that MbS and his cronies will not be allowed to tighten the grip of the Gulf dynasties over European football. All we need is for the UK government, the Premier League, and Barclays Bank to develop a conscience in the next few months.
Welcome to Premier League, MbS.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.