A Saudi Arabian-led consortium is close to finally taking over Newcastle United and ending Mike Ashley’s 14-year ownership of the club, with a deal expected to be approved imminently.
Some sources have suggested the £300m takeover could even be completed within the next 24 hours – although others are more cautious – with Amanda Staveley, the British businesswoman, likely to be the face of the deal on an interim basis before being moved aside.
The development follows the news that Saudi Arabia has lifted its four‑year ban on sports channel network beIN Sports to allow Premier League, Uefa and Fifa matches to be broadcast legally again – as well as promising to close pirate websites operating in the country.
Moreover, it is understood that Saudi Arabia is in discussions over beIN’s Sports claims for damages totalling more than $1bn due to the country being behind a pirate network, BeoutQ, that illegally transmitted games for several years.
However, the resolution of the piracy issue was not the only key factor in putting the deal, which was first proposed in March 2020, back on the table.
It also came down to the Saudi-backed 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 initial 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.
News of the incumbent Newcastle owner’s impending departure will provoke joy and relief among long‑suffering fans, who believe the retail magnate has run the club into the ground during his no-frills tenure. The prospect of the club being revitalised by new investors with deep pockets is now tantalisingly close to becoming a reality.
There is, though, likely to be 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”.
The US intelligence department has, significantly, named Prince Mohammed as having approved the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s Turkish embassy in October 2018.
The Saudi consortium will own 80% of the club, with 10% going to the property developers Simon and David Reuben and the remaining 10% going to Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners.
One of the new board’s first tasks is likely to appoint a new manager to replace the deeply unpopular Steve Bruce. Although the former Manchester United centre-half has kept Newcastle in the top tier since succeeding the widely adored Rafael Benítez in July 2019, he is regarded as an “Ashley puppet” by large elements of the fan base and is still to oversee a league win after seven games this season. With his team currently second bottom, Bruce is almost certainly on borrowed time.
It is an open secret that the Saudis originally planned to reinstall Benítez in the manager’s office at St James’ Park had the takeover proceeded as planned last year but the Spaniard has since taken charge of Everton and will not, after all, be making an emotionally charged return to Tyneside.
The former Italy, Chelsea and Internazionale coach Antonio Conte and the former Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane were among the decorated names being connected with the post onWednesday night. However sources close to the Saudi led deal have always maintained that, while relegation would be unthinkable, they would initially concentrate primarily on updating and improving the club’s tired infrastructure.
While a new training ground and enhanced academy are likely to be among the early priorities so, too, are hundreds of millions of pounds in investment in wider community and regional regeneration projects in the north east.
Local MPs and council leaders have long supported a potential takeover that chimes with the government’s “levelling up” agenda. Indeed it is understood that discreet discussions about how best to revive the buyout have taken place between British government intermediaries and their Saudi counterparts in recent weeks.