Column: Saudi control of Newcastle — victories over reality
LONDON (AP) — When the broker of Newcastle’s buyout was asked when she last spoke to Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman about the English Premier League club, she was momentarily unsettled.
After a long sigh and further hesitation, Amanda Staveley was clearer when pressed for a second time in an interview with The Associated Press.
“We haven’t spoken to the crown prince about this for some time,” she said. “A long time.”
And yet the sovereign wealth fund that became the majority owner of Newcastle is chaired by Prince Mohammad, and the protracted sale has brought Saudi Arabia undesired scrutiny of its conduct from human rights violations to broadcasting piracy.
But the club’s new leadership and the Premier League are trying to convince everyone to ignore reality by claiming the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with the running of the Public Investment Fund’s latest acquisition.
“PIF is very much an autonomous, commercially driven investment fund,” said Staveley, who is joining the club’s board after acquiring a 10% stake through PCP Capital Partners, “and it does not operate as part of the wider state. So there is that separation.”
Even accepting Staveley’s assertions that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia is too busy with running the country or the rest of the $430 billion fund’s assets to be preoccupied with the 300-million-pound ($409 million) footballing asset, a glance at the rest of the PIF’s board makes any separation of the state from PIF even harder to discern.
Of the eight men — none are women -- there are six Saudi ministers and an advisor to the royal court. The fund’s governor, Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, has become the non-executive chairman of Newcastle. Al-Rumayyan, who also represents PIF on Uber’s board in a sign of the funds’ reach, is addressed by Newcastle as “his excellency” online.
“The idea that the PIF is separate from the Saudi state is laughable,” said James Lynch, director of human rights group Fair Square. “Something that can be established with just a few minutes on Google.”
The Newcastle fans chanting, “We are Saudis, we do what we want!” outside St. James’ Park on Thursday didn’t seem to care much about ownership structures. Only that PIF — new owner of 80% of the Magpies — is ready to turn on the cash flow at a club without a league title in almost a century, and in the relegation zone two months into the season.
Being owned by an entity owned by a Gulf state immediately elevates the status and financial clout of Newcastle — and brings an undesired connection with the violations of governments.
“The game as a whole must reflect on why it has become so attractive to authoritarian regimes,” the Football Supporters Europe group said.
If PIF funds a first English title since 1927, Newcastle’s Toon Army won’t be concerned about the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen that U.S. President Joe Biden has said “created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or the imprisonment of peaceful women’s rights advocates in Saudi Arabia.
Fans prefer to see only the collection of trophies won and playing talent amassed in the last decade by Abu Dhabi-funded Manchester City and Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain to start dreaming of success unimaginable under the parsimonious reign of retail magnate Mike Ashley, which ended on Thursday.
“It’s a bit late to have a philosophical discussion on whether we want sovereign wealth funds to own football clubs,” said former Premier League chief executive Ricky Parry, who chairs the EFL running the three lower professional divisions. “That horse has bolted.”
It took the Premier League coming to the puzzling conclusion that PIF produced “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club” in order to approve the new owner and directors.
The league won’t explain why it decided to accept assurances from PIF that its chairman will have no say in Newcastle’s operations or why it would be a problem having the crown prince hiring and firing coaches, and signing players, when across the region, United Arab Emirates Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour is allowed to own Manchester City.
The lack of transparency from the Premier League makes it unclear how vital it was for the Saudis to finally lift their ban on Middle East TV rights holder beIN Sports to end the legal dispute stalling the Newcastle deal. The broadcasting dispute was an additional means of trying to undermine Qatar financially during the four-year Gulf diplomatic boycott of Doha that the Saudis and neighbors ended in January.
The Qatar-owned broadcaster’s feeds were being pirated in an operation facilitated by the kingdom, and was subject to legal action by the Premier League.
The league also won’t discuss how much consideration it gave to concerns by human rights activists -- particularly Amnesty -- about a fund run by the crown prince owning Newcastle.
Planes owned by a PIF company are said to have been used by the alleged Saudi assassination squad that flew to Istanbul in 2018 to murder the U.S.-based Saudi journalist Khashoggi in the consulate. U.S. intelligence services said they believe the slaying came at the crown prince’s orders, which the Saudis deny.
“Prospective owners are supposed to be disqualified if the board considers they have carried out a dishonest act that would be an offense if it was carried out in the UK,” Lynch said. “It’s really very hard to think of how there could be any clearer red flags for the EPL.”
Staveley was reticent to discuss the links to PIF and its chairman with Khashoggi’s murder.
“The one great thing about this deal, that has taken four years, is that I’ve got to know PIF incredibly well,” Staveley said. “We’re very proud to work with them … and I think when you meet with the team on the ground, you’ll also understand that it’s an autonomous organization.”
Amnesty believed it contributed to the sale of Newcastle collapsing last year, and now sees the completion of the purchase as a “worrying” moment for the English game.
“In our assessment, this deal was always more about sportswashing than it was about football,” said Sacha Deshmukh, CEO of Amnesty International UK, “with Saudi Arabia’s aggressive move into sport as a vehicle for image management and PR plain for all to see.”
While activists see investment in sports as trying to divert attention from an atrocious human rights record, the Saudis see buying teams and hosting events such as Formula One and boxing title bouts as a vehicle to promote social changes underway in the country.
Staveley, though, wants to distance Newcastle from the very country that owns most of the club.
“We are an independent club,” she said. “My message to Amnesty is, ‘Our partner is PIF,’ and that’s my message. We understand their concerns and that is why our partner is PIF.”
The PIF chaired by the crown prince — the new hero of Newcastle fans.
What the Saudis can be sure of, for now, is gratitude from fans who are far happier to see the exit of hated former owner Mike Ashley. Even Newcastle’s LGBTQ+ supporters group seems untroubled the club is owned by a country where relations between people of the same sex are illegal.
“As a bunch of fans, we don’t have any capability of changing things,” United with Pride secretary Mark Bethan said. “We weren’t the decision-makers. We didn’t decide any of these things.”
But cultures are set to collide. Fans have already been seen in Newcastle offensively mimicking Saudis by pairing imitations of the red-and-white checkered headdress with white flowing robes.
Fans aren’t only celebrating the change of ownership but acting at times as defenders — even apologists — for the actions of a country they have never been to.
But when the Premier League is so willing to deny the uncomfortable reality of the new ownership, no wonder morality is so elastic for fans.
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Rob Harris is at https://twitter.com/RobHarris and https://facebook.com/RobHarrisReports