The North East of England may seem an unlikely launchpad for Saudi Arabia’s first major entry into football, but Newcastle offers fertile ground for the Middle Eastern kingdom and its ambitions.
The Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle is reported to be imminent. Under the terms of the deal, a consortium led by British investor Amanda Staveley and her firm PCP Capital Partners will acquire the Premier League club from its current owner, widely-reviled retail billionaire Mike Ashley, for the knockdown price of £300 million ($373 million).
Staveley will gain a 10 percent stake, with another 10 percent heading to UK property billionaires the Reuben brothers. But the real financial clout in the deal comes from the reported 80 percent backing of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) – a vast sovereign wealth fund with assets in excess of $300 billion, and ultimately headed up by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Staveley, 47, is herself an intriguing character: a one-time beau of Prince Andrew who has established herself as a Middle-Eastern powerbroker, helping the Saudis’ neighbors in the UAE complete their own takeover of Manchester City back in 2008.
This time round though, she is backed by an even bigger behemoth in the form of the PIF, a gargantuan fund seeking to “drive the economic transformation” of Saudi Arabia as it aims to diversify its economy under Bin Salman’s grandiose ‘Vision 2030’ project.
That plan includes using sport to accumulate cultural capital, showcasing that the Saudis are open for business and integration with the wider world. High-profile examples include the staging of the boxing world heavyweight title rematch between Andy Ruiz and Anthony Joshua in the kingdom last year, while a Saudi Grand Prix is set to be added to the F1 calendar from 2023.
Members of the Saudi royal family have already dabbled in football. Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud won control of Premier League club Sheffield United in 2019, while the Saudi General Sports Authority has a “strategic partnership” with Manchester United – something which helped fuel speculation that Bin Salman was targeting a takeover of the Old Trafford giants for his big leap into football.
However, Newcastle is now set to be the conduit through which the kingdom throws its full financial might into the sport, following in the footsteps of the likes of regional rivals Qatar at Paris Saint-Germain, and the UAE’s Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City.
For the Saudis, Newcastle seems like the perfect fit. Bin Salman and Co. will be taking over from an owner among the most reviled in world football. Since gaining control of the club in 2007, Ashley has been locked in a loveless marriage with Newcastle fans, who accuse him of stripping a proud club of its soul, cynically using it as a vehicle to promote the interests of his own retail empire.
Former cult hero Faustino Asprilla succinctly summed up the sentiment in a tweet this week when he said Ashely had seen Newcastle’s iconic black and white shirts as merely a barcode to pursue commercial opportunities.
Mike Ashley saw fans of @NUFC like bar codes; hopefully that will end soon. This team is for lovers, not for just merchandisers. pic.twitter.com/2eIB4pyzfm
Fans will remember Asprilla as scoring a hat-trick against Barcelona in the Champions League in 1997, part of a team with a swashbuckling style which characterized Newcastle in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since Ashley took the helm, fans have seen two relegations to the Championship, while time spent in the Premier League has largely been characterized by a stodgy, uninspiring brand of football. Ashley has ostracized club legends such as Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, also ensuring that Rafael Benitez, the man widely seen as the club’s shrewdest managerial appointment in years, ultimately left disgruntled and disillusioned in the summer of 2019.
Recent polls have shown that fans on Tyneside are desperate for the Saudis to swoop in and rid them of Ashely. That feeling appears to be mutual – Ashley has tried (and failed) to sell the club several times, initially putting it up for sale one year after buying it. A previous takeover bid headed by Staveley fell through in early 2018, while last summer a purported bid from the Dubai-based Bin Zayed Group also collapsed.
Predictably, a different story has emerged among the liberal chattering classes in the western football media, who have raised the Saudis’ human rights record and incidents such as the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the nation’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Writers including The Guardian’s Barney Ronay would seemingly see fans rise up against the takeover on moral grounds, taking their lead from rights crusaders such as Amnesty International.
Football does not operate in a moral vacuum, and the Saudi takeover will sit uneasily with some Newcastle fans. But many fans will point to the fact that even in sporting terms, the Saudis already have their fingers in more pies than are sold on a typical matchday at Newcastle’s famous St James’ Park home. They will also indicate the records of sundry unsavory characters in charge at clubs elsewhere.
Instead, the overwhelming sentiment of the Geordie faithful will simply be relief that Ashley has gone, with the prospect of investment flowing back into the club, bringing entertaining football and potentially even the chance of the first major silverware in decades. Those with even loftier ambitions will look to what Middle Eastern money has done at Manchester City, propelling a similarly downtrodden club into the European elite.
From the Saudi perspective, Newcastle offers a ‘Goldilocks’ ideal, a club with neither the well-established glamor and clout of the likes of Manchester United, nor complete minnows for which Saudi money would be needed to start from scratch. Instead, there is untapped potential, the chance to build on a club with a proud but diminished history, with a 52,000-seater stadium and an army of fans in a city in which football is a religion. The club play in what brands itself as the biggest football league in the world, bringing the global exposure that comes along with it. While they are hardly strapped for cash, the knockdown price is also a bonus for the Saudis, given Ashley’s urge to sell at a time when markets have been decimated by the coronavirus carnage.
Should the deal be finalized – and it is reportedly at the consideration stage by the Premier League – broader investment beyond playing and managerial personnel would be expected. Much as Manchester City’s Middle Eastern backers have done in the eastern part of that city, the Saudis could invest in broader regeneration in Newcastle, showing their benevolence, leveraging some cultural capital and further burnishing their image – which, let’s not forget, is an all-important consideration in the deal.
So while Newcastle’s Toon Army and the House of Saud may seem unlikely bedfellows, they offer exactly what the other side needs. Through the takeover on Tyneside, the stage is being prepared for an unlikely union, but one which could shake the top of the footballing tree.