Another season, another disappointment for the Toon Army. After 13 years under the bewildering ownership of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle fans began to believe that the end was nigh as a consortium from Saudi Arabia jumped through Ashley’s hoops in order to try to secure the club. All that stood between them and ownership of the North East club was a fit and proper ownership test by the Premier League.
For a club known for its black and white, this failed takeover was anything but that. Indeed the failure of the takeover has left the fans with more questions that answers – why did it take 17 weeks for the Premier League to respond, why was the World Trade Organization involved and who else played a role in the bids demise? The clouds over Newcastle are a dark grey colour now as these questions lie unanswered. So what happened? Why did the Premier League take so long to respond. And what else can we read into this deal falling through.
First in was Amnesty International who took the unusual step of writing to Premier League Chief Richard Masters urging it to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record before signing off on the takeover of Newcastle United. These are genuine concerns but the question is more about why Amnesty decided that this takeover over all others was the one that they had to weigh in on. In 2017, Amnesty identified human rights violations in 159 countries which included Saudi Arabia. But also in that list was the USA, Russia and China, all of which have had companies that have bought Premier League clubs in the last twenty years. Indeed Sheffield United are owned by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad who won control of the club just last year. Also included was Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who have state owned ownership of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City respectively. The decision by Amnesty to act now and oppose this takeover rather than the others appears to be motivated by factors outside of the common good.
That was followed by BeIn Sports who challenged the Premier League to block the deal on the grounds that Saudi Arabia had been involved in piracy and should be held accountable for operating a pirate network that was illegally streaming EPL games. The Qatar based company’s staunch opposition to the deal made little sense as the two elements (piracy in Saudi Arabia and ownership of Newcastle) have little in common. It could be argued that like the Amnesty International objective, third parties could have been operating in the background in an effort to derail any deal. Ironically BeIn’s chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also the current president of Paris Saint Germain; a club who would not react well to another English based club gaining the same financial muscle as they currently have.
Shortly after, the World Trade Organization issued a report which found representatives of the Saudi state had facilitated the activity of the pirate network BeoutQ, which illegally broadcast a host of sporting events including Premier League matches. Why this report was produced and released is unknown nor what the WTO, whose mandate is around the regulations of international trade between nations, is doing looking into broadcast rights in the first place is a bigger question. In addition the timing of this release is suspicious given how close the Premier League were to making its decision. The release of the report only added a new layer to navigate and delayed the decision even further.
Finally there was pressure from the UK government to not allow the deal citing the need for Saudi Arabia to reform its justice system and release all political prisoners and the attempt to ‘whitewash’ them with the takeover. Eight MPs in total wrote to Richard Masters led by John Nicolson, SNP spokesperson and a member of the House of Commons on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He stated on Twitter shortly after the deal collapsed that “the Premier League must now revise its Owners and Directors Test to ensure this fiasco isn’t repeated”. He continued “Heads of States with gruesome human rights records should never be allowed to launder their reputations through sport”. Ironically Nicholson had no objection to Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad’s takeover at Sheffield United despite his father being the brother of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Also worth noting that the position of Nicholson was not exactly backed by the Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston who distanced himself from talk of Newcastle United’s takeover saga. Huddleston swung the spotlight firmly on to the Premier League to make the decision. When asked about the government’s stance, Huddleston said: “I’m very uncomfortable with the level of expectation of involvement on government with things that are very clearly decisions for football. There is obviously the fit and proper persons test to go through with any acquisitions of this nature and I think that is absolutely appropriate. It’s something that I’m keeping an eye on but it is a decision for those involved. It would be inappropriate for me to interfere at that kind of level.” Why his understudy felt it important to push the matter without Huddleston’s blessing is unknown yet the same theory could be applied in that he was influenced to do so.
All of this along with the Premier League’s irregular delay in making a decision about whether the prospective owners passed their owners and directors test suggests that the events that led up to the PIF withdrawing its bid in frustration, were not as black and white as we are made to believe. It’s natural to assume that all these events were planned and orchestrated to derail the proceedings. When one failed, the next stepped up sometimes only days later. Amanda Staveley who was fronting the bid spoke shortly after the collapse of the deal and implied that fellow Premier League clubs, Tottenham and Liverpool had made their objections to the deal going through clear to the Premier League but its likely others were involved as well. Several clubs across Europe had a lot to lose of this deal went through primarily as it would put Newcastle at a financial advantage and provide them a better chance of challenging for silverware both at home and abroad. Whatever is the truth, this deal didn’t happen due to due diligence or because of delays at the Premier League. It never stood a chance of succeeding as others orchestrated moves to undermine it and protect their own interests.