LONDON – Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund moved closer to acquiring a Premier League football team after the kingdom reached a deal that resolved the league’s biggest objection to the proposed sale of Newcastle United.
A $400 million deal in which Newcastle owner Mike Ashley would hand over control of the team to an ownership group led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was reached more than a year ago. But the sale collapsed in a year-long dispute between beIN Media Group, a Qatar-based television network that owns the broadcast rights to the Premier League in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has barred BIN from operating within its borders since 2017 amid a diplomatic dispute with its smaller but extremely wealthy neighbor Qatar. BeIN, the owners of the Premier League and other major sports assets, later accused Saudi Arabia of hosting and operating a rogue television network that plagiarized billions of dollars worth of content sold to the Qatari broadcaster.
The sale of Newcastle was drawn into controversy last year when BeIN officials lobbied Premier League officials and the British government not to approve the takeover. The league never had to make a decision: facing mounting public pressure and citing “an unexpectedly lengthy process”, the Saudi group withdrew its bid.
Over the past year, however, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a group of their neighbors have rebuilt diplomatic and economic ties by ending Qatar’s three-year blockade and normalizing diplomatic ties.
Under Premier League rules, potential buyers of league teams must be screened to ensure they meet the so-called fit-and-appropriate standard required of new owners. The group involved in the Newcastle takeover, which also includes British businessman Amanda Stavley and two billionaire property-investing brothers, left after months of deliberating a sale by the league.
At the time, the most problematic issue for the Premier League was the proposed sale of an entity to one of its members, which the league itself accused of harming the business of a significant commercial partner. With an agreement to resolve the beIN piracy dispute in place, there is nothing in the Premier League rules that precludes the sale of a team to a unit of a nation state. Manchester City, for example, is controlled by the current Premier League champions, a member of the UAE’s ruling family.
Easing the sale avenues may also be a separate legal issue. Upset over the collapse of his deal to sell Newcastle, Ashley filed suit against the Premier League in May, seeking millions of dollars in damages and accusing the league of stalling the sale. It was not known of the Premier League that it had ever stopped a sale, and with the return of the Saudi group, despite Ashley’s claims, it appears not to have done the same to Newcastle.
A Saudi takeover would be the latest inflow of sovereign Gulf money into European football, adding not only to the city but also Qatar’s ownership of French champions Paris Saint-Germain. The seemingly inexhaustible resources of those ownership groups have since created teams that are now firmly established as the best in Europe, and have reshaped the modern football economy.
Newcastle’s long-suffering fans are hoping to enjoy the same rapid growth since Saudi interest first surfaced. Supporters of the club have taken to social media in the thousands to promote the sale, sign petitions and even take legal action against the Premier League for pursuing the takeover.
Newcastle missed out on winning the Premier League title twice in the mid-1990s, but have not won a major domestic trophy since the 1955 FA Cup. The last of the club’s four English titles came in 1927, and the club’s recent history has been dominated by fan protests from retail tycoon Ashley, who acquired the team in 2007.
Saudi-led investors had proposed spending $320 million over five years to turn Newcastle into a competitive force in the Premier League and invest in the infrastructure surrounding its stadium.
While the glamor and global reach of the Premier League have long made it a magnet for the world’s superrich – the team’s owners currently include an American billionaire, a Russian oligarch, a Chinese holding company and a Gulf royal – a Saudi The prospect of state procurement has probed never seen before.
When the deal was first announced, human rights groups and even the widow of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote to Premier League chief executive Richard Masters urging the sale to be blocked due to the involvement of the Public Investment Fund. under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
If Saudi Arabia resurfaces, and completes its deal with Ashley, that type of criticism is likely to resurface.
Buying into a major international soccer league with global reach would follow similar recent efforts by Saudi Arabia in the sports industry. The state has for years planned to grow its economy beyond oil, and sports and entertainment have emerged as key parts of a broader investment strategy. So far, millions have been spent to attract boxing, golf and motor sports events to Saudi Arabia, but officials know football’s appeal is none other than that.
Earlier this year, the head of the country’s football federation called on FIFA to study the possibility of increasing the frequency of men’s World Cups to every two years instead of every four. Saudi Arabia is working behind the scenes to secure the hosting rights of the event.