The Premier League’s handling of the Newcastle sale is yet another regulatory mess
The Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is under the spotlight again, so this time will we get the truth about how it was approved by the Premier League?
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that anybody has been terribly surprised. The news that there may be fewer degrees of separation between the Public Investment Fund that bought Newcastle United in October 2021 than had been claimed at the point that the takeover was finally waved through doesn’t feel that shocking. After all, over the last 16 months or so there has been a common assumption that they were one and the same outside of official circles.
But at the same time, to see it spelt out in black and white – no pun intended – does make uncomfortable reading for the Premier League. According to court documents filed in a case involving the PGA Tour and LIV Golf in the United States of America the Newcastle chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan, is as “a sitting minister of the Saudi government”, while the PIF itself is described as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
No part of this would be particularly surprising under any other circumstances but those in which this story now finds itself. The very nature of Public Investment Funds mean that yes, of course government officials will be closely involved in how said funds are actually invested. What remains surprising is that the Premier League waved it through in the first place when there were concerns over exactly this, stating that they had “received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club”.
The Premier League has never divulged what any of those “legally binding assurances” might have been, citing confidentiality clauses. But it’s also worth remembering why these assurances were required in the first place, because there was a specific reason for it, rather than any particular apparent desire to keep state ownership out of the league.
When the PIF submitted its original bid to purchase Newcastle, the Premier League was concerned that it was indirectly approving the sale of a football club to an entity accused of harming one of its major commercial partners: beIN Sports, the Qatari broadcasters who hold Premier League broadcasting rights across the Middle East.
Weeks before reviewing the PIF’s initial bid at the start of 2020, the Premier League wrote to the Office of the United States Trade Representative that accused Saudi Arabia of illegally transmitting football matches via beoutQ, and in doing so undercutting beIN. Officials from beIN also lobbied Premier League officials and the British government not to approve the takeover after the proposed deal was made public.
Saudi Arabia had banned beIN from broadcasting within their country following a diplomatic spat in 2017, but beoutQ launched shortly afterwards. The new channel, geo-locked for users in Saudi Arabia, claimed that its backers were from a Colombian and Cuban consortium, but an investigation by the Premier League and other major sports organisations traced beoutQ’s signal back to the satellite provider ArabSat, whose largest investor is Saudi Arabia.
In June 2020, a World Trade Organisation panel ruled in favour of Qatar, stating that Saudi Arabia had breached global rules on intellectual property rights by failing to prosecute beoutQ. A month later, the PIF withdrew its bid for Newcastle, citing an “unforeseen prolonged process” and global uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
In January 2021, the blockade was resolved, and beIN was eventually made available in Saudi Arabia again. But in confirming their approval of the sale of Newcastle to the PIF, the Premier League required their legally binding assurances. But this always raised significant questions, primarily what were these “legally binding assurances”, why it was so important that they remained confidential, and what would actually happen if those assurances did ultimately end up having been built on sand.
This opacity leads to inevitable questions, among the most pressing of which was that of how, exactly, could the Premier League legally “remove the consortium as owners of the club”, even if it wanted to? We don’t know, because they’ve never said, but it’s what the league’s chief executive, Richard Masters, told the BBC in an interview in November 2021. This question isn’t intended as a ‘gotcha’ of any sort. If the Premier League is going to be this opaque, then they need a very good reason for being so. And if they’re going to say effectively, ‘it’s okay, we can get rid of them if it turns out they’ve been fibbing’, then they need a mechanism to do so which is legal under the laws of this country.
The very idea of this separation remains as unlikely as it did in 2021. The PIF is chaired by the Saudi prime minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with eight of the nine PIF board members listed on the fund’s website as being a government minister or royal adviser. The only one of those not in one of those positions is the Newcastle chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan, but a brief filed in a court case involving the PGA Tour and LIV Golf describes the PIF as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and Rumayyan as “a sitting minister of the Saudi government”.
There was clearly considerable unhappiness from the other 19 clubs in the division at the time that the takeover was waved through, not least because of a perception of subterfuge over how it was approved. Other clubs had been of the view that the sale had been blocked, and meetings held shortly before it was announced made no mention of it.
By the time the other clubs mobilised, it was too late for them to do anything about the takeover having gone through, but they did force through new rules on related party transactions, intended to stem the flow of money into clubs from this sort of takeover. Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman left his role a month later, pushed out by clubs unhappy at the league’s lack of transparency over all of this.
The efficacy of these rules seems somewhat questionable, considering subsequent events. Newcastle have spent a net total of £241m on new permanent signings – for reference, this amount of money alone is two years’ Premier League TV and prize fund money – and have lifted themselves to fifth place in the Premier League while reaching their first cup final in 24 years in this year’s EFL Cup. Meanwhile, the release of a white and green change kit – the Saudi colours – felt like something of a raised middle to those who had raised objections to the takeover.
It should be made clear that none of this was about the Saudis’ human rights record, or the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018. The Premier League’s reservations over allowing the takeover to go through were only, so far as anyone was ever really made aware, about the beIN issue. And a healthy eyebrow should also be raised at the motives of clubs who are now so angry. The lines between ‘protecting the integrity of the league’ and ‘naked self-interest’ can be blurry at times, after all.
It has been reported that clubs want the matter discussed in detail at their next shareholders meeting at the end of March, but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the horse has already bolted on this matter. The recent white paper regarding an independent football regulator made no mention of state ownership or human rights concerns being a part of a new licensing system, and while clubs may well express their anger over this particular takeover, unwinding it would be extremely difficult to achieve and may well end up in court.
But that doesn’t mean that the Premier League doesn’t have questions to answer, most notably of what assurances they received concerning the separation of the Saudi state from Newcastle United and what remedies they can put in place should it be agreed that there really is very little to none at all.
Because in a broad sense, this doesn’t even have to really be about this specific club or this specific takeover. At a time when the way in which football is run in this country is under a glaring spotlight, the way in which this was dealt with by the Premier League – with the other 19 clubs not even finding out that it had been approved at the same time as everybody else, when the League surely knew how contentious it would be – doesn’t exactly paint a picture of good governance, and at a time when the League needs to be demonstrating that it can keep its own house in order.
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