LONDON (AP) — Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund completed a buyout of Premier League club Newcastle on Thursday, giving hope to fans dreaming of a first title in almost a century but concerning human rights activists that the kingdom had gained a foothold in the world's richest soccer league.
Supporters descended on the club's St. James' Park stadium, some chanting “we are Saudis, we do what we want" and others singing “we’ve got our club back" amid the promise of long-desired investment.
The 300-million-pound ($409 million) takeover had been pursued since 2017 but stalled and then collapsed last year over concerns about how much control the Saudi state would have in the running of Newcastle amid scrutiny over piracy of sports broadcasts and human rights violations in the kingdom.
It led to a protracted legal fight that only ended this week when the Public Investment Fund offered assurances to the Premier League that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and in turn the state, would not have any say in the team.
PIF has bought 80% of the club — which is in the relegation zone after seven matches — with the wealthy British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners owning the rest.
“The big change was the control issue,” Staveley told The Associated Press. ”We needed to demonstrate there was sufficient separation between PIF and the Saudi state, and that has been determined that there is.”
But while the crown prince will not have a place on Newcastle's board of directors, he remains chairman of the PIF. The fund’s governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan will be on the board at the northeast English club as non-executive chairman.
“The crown prince is chairman of a lot of entities in Saudi," said Staveley, who will also be on the club's board. “PIF is very much an autonomous, commercially driven investment fund, and it does not operate as part of the wider state. So there is that separation.”
The Premier League's approval of the new owners and directors means 15 of its clubs are either owned or part-owned by overseas investors.
“All parties have agreed the settlement is necessary to end the long uncertainty for fans over the club’s ownership," the league said in a statement. "The Premier League has now received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.”
The takeover ends the 14-year ownership by British retail tycoon Mike Ashley, who has been widely viewed as a figure of scorn in the one-club city.
His ownership has been marked by chronic underinvestment in the playing squad, his use of Newcastle as a vehicle to promote his business interests, and of a general lack of ambition despite the club attracting regular home crowds of more than 50,000.
Newcastle has not won a major trophy since the 1955 FA Cup and its last league title was in 1927.
“Newcastle is like a magical, very beautiful, rough diamond,” Staveley said in a telephone interview. “But it needs some nurturing and polishing. But it’s a star.”
With no wins and only three points from seven games, the poor start to the season means the future of manager Steve Bruce will be assessed before the next game next week — at home to Tottenham on Oct. 17 — after the international break.
The club will be seeking a transformation in the same manner enjoyed by Manchester City in 2008 after its takeover by another Middle Eastern entity — Abu Dhabi — that was also brokered by Staveley.
A key impediment to the Newcastle takeover was the pirating of sports broadcasts from Qatari-owned beIN — including of Premier League games — by an entity the World Trade Organization said was facilitated by the Saudi state. The Saudis declared beIN illegal in 2017 as they launched a wider economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar alongside the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain over accusations Doha supports extremism. The tiny, super-rich nation of Qatar denied the charge and the boycott ended this year.
The Premier League was among the sports organizations that protested against the pirating of its games by the renegade beOutQ operation.
Saudi Arabia is expected to soon lift its ban on beIN, but Staveley said that wasn't what ended the impasse over the takeover.
“The piracy — those issues had been resolved,” Staveley said. “This debate was just about control for us.”
Newcastle was challenging the Premier League’s decision not to approve the takeover at a Competition Appeals Tribunal whose latest hearing was last week.
But there was a lingering ethical dimension to whether PIF was approved as owners. Amnesty International wrote to league chief executive Richard Masters last year to say the takeover could be exploited by Saudi Arabia to cover up “deeply immoral” breaches of international law, citing human rights violations and the role of the crown prince.
Amnesty raised concerns with Masters about the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul after U.S. intelligence services said they believe the slaying came at the crown prince’s orders. The kingdom has denied that.
“We can understand that this will be seen as a great day by many Newcastle United fans,” Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK, said Thursday. “But it’s also a very worrying day for anyone who cares about the ownership of English football clubs and whether these great clubs are being used to sportswash human rights abuse.
“In our assessment, this deal was always more about sportswashing than it was about football, with Saudi Arabia’s aggressive move into sport as a vehicle for image-management and PR plain for all to see.”
Responding to Amnesty's complaints, Staveley again tried to create a distinction between PIF and the Saudi leadership despite the funding being from the state fund.
“We understand the concerns,” Staveley said. “And that is why my partner is PIF.”
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