Newcastle United confirm €350m Saudi-backed takeover to end Mike Ashley era

Strong backlash from human rights groups after controversial deal goes through

Newcastle United have confirmed the club’s takeover by a Saudi Arabian-led consortium, ending Mike Ashley’s 14-year ownership.

The controversial £300 million (€353.5 million) deal received Premier League approval almost 18 months after it was first proposed. It hands the keys of St James’ Park to owners capable of transforming Newcastle into one of the world’s wealthiest clubs and follows the news that Saudi Arabia has lifted its four-year ban on sports channel network beIN Sports. This allows Premier League, Uefa and Fifa matches to be broadcast legally again, and the Gulf kingdom has also promised to close pirate websites operating in the country.

Crucial to the takeover’s approval was the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) – the state’s sovereign wealth fund overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – providing assurances to the Premier League that the Saudi state would not be involved in the day-to-day running of Newcastle. That had been a significant stumbling block when the deal hit the rocks in July last year, with the Premier League considering the PIF de facto the Saudi state when it came to passing its owners’ and directors’ test.

That issue has been the subject of a long legal dispute by Ashley, which was expected to be resolved in an arbitration hearing in January but will now be dropped.

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The Saudi commerce minister and acting media minister, Majid bin Abdullah al-Qasabi, is understood to have played a key role in brokering the deal and Yasir al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF, will take a seat on the club’s board.

“The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United,” the league said in a statement confirming the takeover. “All parties are pleased to have concluded this process which gives certainty and clarity to Newcastle United Football Club and their fans.”

News of Ashley’s departure will provoke joy and relief among many fans but the takeover will be met with a strong backlash from human rights groups, most notably Amnesty International, who have long warned that the Saudi regime is trying to “sportswash” its reputation.

Amnesty has also cautioned that civil society has also been silenced in Saudi Arabia and "anyone critical of the regime has been exiled, arrested, or threatened". On Wednesday its UK's chief executive, Sacha Deshmukh, said the deal represented "a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football".

The Saudi consortium will own 80 per cent of the club, with 10 per cent going to the billionaire businessmen and international property developers Simon and David Reuben and the remaining 10 per cent going to the Yorkshire-born, largely Dubai-based financier Amanda Staveley's PCP Capital Partners. The Reubens hold an extensive property portfolio in Newcastle with their assets including the city's racecourse.

With the team second bottom of the Premier League and still to win a league game, one of the new board's first tasks is likely to appoint a new manager to replace Steve Bruce. A new training ground and enhanced academy are expected to be among other the early priorities, and hundreds of millions of pounds is in line to be invested in wider community and regional regeneration projects in the north-east.

Staveley has been very much the public face of the long-running takeover saga, dubbed “Project Zebra” by consortium insiders. Four years ago Ashley called her a “time-waster” after she and PCP Capital partners joined a different consortium in a forlorn attempt to buy Newcastle from the retail tycoon.

This time it is different. Saudi Arabia views Newcastle as part of its Vision 2030 plan to modernise the kingdom and wean it off a longstanding dependence on oil. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis it has been quietly, and counterintuitively, purchasing stakes in assorted businesses, including the cruise company Carnival.

With Staveley and Jamie Reuben – the son of David Reuben – set to assume key boardroom roles, the Saudis could argue they are displaying a newfound diversity towards gender and religion.

If many Newcastle fans are conflicted about the club having fallen into Saudi hands, Ashley’s departure saw thousands of supporters crack open the stashes of alcohol stockpiled in readiness for a long-dreamed celebration marking Newcastle’s sale.

On the pitch the consortium's blueprint is to take back to the Champions League a club that has suffered two relegations and two promotions since Ashley bought it from John Hall and Freddy Shepherd for £134 million in 2007.

There has also been talk of investment in urban regeneration in Newcastle and possibly a donation to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, the NHS hospital situated a long goalkick from St James’ Park. PIF is involved in supplying artificial-intelligence data to the NHS through it’s Project Babylon initiative.

It is understood the government has welcomed the Saudi investment in Newcastle and attendant strengthening of the UK’s strong commercial and intelligence links with the kingdom. – Guardian