Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund withdrew its bid to buy English Premier League club Newcastle on Thursday after the process was stalled by concerns about piracy by the kingdom and human-rights complaints.
The league has spent four months considering whether to approve the £300-million (US$392-million) takeover that would have seen Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund gain an 80-per-cent take in the northeast club.
The Premier League faced calls to block the takeover by Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of murdered journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi. The assassination and dismemberment of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in late 2018 has been linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees the fund.
The British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley were also part of the PIF bid, planning to each buy the remaining 10-per-cent stakes to end the ownership of retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley.
“We have come to the decision to withdraw our interest in acquiring Newcastle United Football Club,” the consortium said in a statement. “We do so with regret, as we were excited and fully committed to invest in the great city of Newcastle and believe we could have returned the club to the position of its history, tradition and fans’ merit.
“Ultimately, during the unforeseeably prolonged process, the commercial agreement between the Investment Group and the club’s owners expired and our investment thesis could not be sustained, particularly with no clarity as to the circumstances under which the next season will start and the new norms that will arise for matches, training and other activities.”
The Premier League never gave an indication on the progress of the stalled takeover and when it would make a decision.
“As often occurs with proposed investments in uncertain periods, time itself became an enemy of the transaction, particularly during this difficult phase marked by the many real challenges facing us all from COVID-19,” the consortium said.
The takeover bid was also complicated by the World Trade Organization recently ruling Saudi Arabia failed to stop a broadcasting operation pirating sports coverage – including of Premier League games – and blocked moves to shut it down in a proxy of the Gulf economic and diplomatic dispute with Qatar.
The Qatar-owned beIN Sports network, which is banned from operating in Saudi Arabia, holds the Middle East rights that are being pirated by beoutQ.
The Premier League wrote to the Office of the United States Trade Representative in February to highlight the lack of legal action taken by Saudi Arabia over beoutQ despite complaints.
Amnesty International asked the league to consider blocking the bid because the fund was overseen by the crown prince, saying he has been involved in a crackdown on human rights. The kingdom insisted he had nothing to do with the killing of Khashoggi, which was carried out by officials who worked directly for him.
“The fact that this sportswashing bid has failed will be seen by human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia as a sign that their suffering has not been entirely overlooked,” Peter Frankental of Amnesty International said. “Numerous peaceful Saudi human rights activists are currently behind bars, and of course a Saudi journalist was grotesquely murdered by agents of the Saudi state less than two years ago.
“Looking ahead, there needs to be a rule change to ensure the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test provides proper scrutiny of the human rights records of those trying to buy into English football, not least when the buyers are governments or government representatives.”