Why the stakes are so high

    A full three months have passed since Newcastle United and the Saudi Arabia-led consortium seeking to buy the club submitted paperwork to the Premier League for approval. A process that normally takes no more than a month is taking three times as long, as everyone from members of the British parliament to Amnesty International to the World Trade Organization have had their say, extending the process and the uncertainty associated with it.

    Premier League chief executive Richard Masters told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that the process of approving the sale has proved to be “complicated” but that he hoped it would be concluded “shortly.”

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    The stakes are huge, in part because some believe the new ownership group’s main partner, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (PIF), have the intention of transforming Newcastle into a global juggernaut in the same way Manchester City were overhauled after their takeover by Abu Dhabi. But this is a complicated tale that raises concerns over human rights, geopolitics and, possibly most crucially for the Premier League, broadcast piracy.

    OK, start at the beginning. Who is part of the consortium?

    The biggest stake, around 80%, belongs to PIF. It’s basically the Saudi government and because it’s an absolute monarchy, it means the Saudi royal family. Saudi Arabia is obviously rich in oil and because they know it will run out eventually, they set up PIF as an investment vehicle. They take the country’s revenues, primarily from the sale of oil, and invest them in corporations around the world in an effort to diversify their economy. They have some $350 billion invested globally.

    PCP Capital partners, led by Amanda Staveley, has another 10% of the Newcastle bid. She helped broker the sale of Manchester City to the Abu Dhabi United Group back in 2008. She’s also in court, where she and her business partner have sued Barclays Bank for $1.85 billion.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, Staveley has a close relationship with Carla DiBello, who has been advising PIF. DiBello is a former producer of reality TV shows like “Keeping Up with The Kardashians.” The rest is held by the Reuben brothers, David and Simon. They were born in Bombay, back when it was part of the British Empire, and emigrated to London. They began dealing in scrap metal and carpets, graduated to aluminum and now are in private equity.

    So these folks have a lot of money. With all due respect, why are they choosing Newcastle and not, say, Chelsea or Tottenham?

    Those two clubs aren’t for sale, at least not officially. More importantly, those would be multibillion deals; the Newcastle takeover is reportedly around £300 million ($370m) and the less you spend on acquiring a club, the more you can invest in it.

    There is also potential in Newcastle. While the club last won the league title in 1927, it consistently draws 50,000 fans every week to St James’ Park. And unlike Spurs and Chelsea, who share London with three other Premier League clubs, Newcastle are the only show in town, football-wise. There’s also the fact that Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s owner, is deeply unpopular with the fan base, which means the new owners would enjoy goodwill from day one.

    Will it be enough to transform Newcastle the way City were transformed?

    Not in the short term, and probably not in the medium-term either, as Mark Ogden explains. Both UEFA and the Premier League have versions of Financial Fair Play rules that limit the amount of losses a club can make, restrictions that didn’t exist in the early years of the Abu Dhabi ownership at City. And Newcastle is simply a smaller, less economically developed part of Britain than Manchester, meaning growing revenue straight away will be a challenge.

    So what are the potential objections to a takeover?

    One of the objections that received the most attention is obviously Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Amnesty International have written to the Premier League, as has the fiancée of the murdered dissident Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi national, who was killed inside his country’s consulate.

    Western intelligence believes the killing was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and PIF Chairman. He has denied the charge and, in fact, five men were later sentenced to death in a Saudi court. That said, the United Nations observer, Agnes Callamard, called the trial “the antithesis of justice” in part because the perpetrators were put to death but the masterminds walked free.

    Aren’t there human rights concerns with other Premier League owners, like the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund that owns Manchester City?

    Sure. Both countries rank near the bottom of various democratic indices around the world, like that compiled by The Economist. Amnesty International’s report on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is fairly damning of both.



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    Perhaps there is more concern over Saudi Arabia because the country is also a major military power, with the fifth-biggest army in the world. Plus, City’s owners have been there for more than a decade and while both countries are important allies to the United Kingdom, UAE has been more open to foreign investment and visitors. (Case in point: Dubai alone attracts more than 20 million tourists to the Emirates each year, whereas until this year you couldn’t get a tourist visa to visit Saudi Arabia.)

    And then there’s the fact that when Abu Dhabi bought City, they acquired the club from Thaksin Shinawatra, who at the time was facing corruption charges and was, effectively, on the run back home in Thailand. Whatever reputational issues there may have been at the time, they played out against someone who, reputationally, was worse.

    Others, like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Alisher Usmanov (former part-owner of Arsenal) have also faced human rights concerns, as has Shinawatra. But there’s a difference, I think, between an individual owning a club and a sovereign wealth fund.

    What’s that?

    An individual represents himself. Ultimately, he’s accountable to laws and prosecution in ways that a sovereign wealth fund, which is basically a country, is not. Especially when that country, like Saudi, is an unelected authoritarian regime. Plus, an individual can do what he wants with his own money in terms of backing a club. A sovereign wealth fund should, in theory at least, look out for the interest of its citizens.

    You could easily make a case that Mohammed bin Salman could buy Newcastle himself, with his own money, if he’s so interested. Government ownership, especially by undemocratic countries without an independent legal system, is problematic in another sense and in the case of the Premier League presents a potential conflict of interest with another club: Sheffield United.

    How so?

    Sheffield United’s majority owner is Mohammed Bin Salman’s cousin, Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Premier League rules disqualify owners if “either directly or indirectly [they are] involved in or [have] any power to determine or influence the management or administration of another club.”

    Put differently, if the U.S. government owned an NBA team and Mark Cuban was the president’s cousin, might there be a potential conflict of interest? That’s something else the Premier League will need to figure out.

    What about this piracy business?

    This tale is a bit more complicated and, because there’s money involved, could potentially matter more to the Premier League.

    Basically, Saudi Arabia is in a long-running dispute with Qatar, who owns the broadcaster beIN Sport. BeIN has the rights to most major football tournaments in the Gulf, from the Premier League to the Champions League, from the World Cup to La Liga. For the past few years, BeIN’s feed was pirated, its logo replaced with the words “beoutQ,” and made accessible via decoder boxes freely sold in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

    BeIN complained and tried to take legal action in Saudi, only to find that no local law firm was willing to take their case. A FIFA investigation found that “without question,” Saudi-backed providers were a part of this piracy operation. FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A wrote to the Saudi government, urging them to take action. The Premier League even wrote to the U.S. Department of State highlighting Saudi piracy concerns. Last week, the World Trade Organization found in favour of Qatar in the beoutQ case, opening the possibility of sanctions.

    When you want to join an organisation (the Premier League) and you’ve been engaged in criminal activity (piracy) that has directly damaged that organisation … well, that’s a problem. Which may explain why, on Sunday, Saudi authorities announced they were beginning to take action against the theft of intellectual property.

    So how is this going to go?

    Beats me, but the delay is significant and can’t be simply explained away by the fact that the Premier League were busy with Project Restart. Ashley’s departure would clearly lift a historically important club and its fan base, which is why so many Newcastle fans are so keen for this takeover to happen. (It’s probably more that than dreams of replicating City’s growth.)

    This isn’t the NFL, where owners vote to approve sales of franchises. The Premier League is fundamentally a service organization, looking after the needs of its member clubs, all of whom are for-profit companies. Making purely moral judgements on who can buy a club isn’t something it has the authority to do unless specifically requested by its members, hence the focus on business reasons, like potential reputational damage. There are also limits placed by UK legislation: Unless specific laws have been broken or there is a business case to be made for not approving a sale, it could be seen as discriminatory.

    The impression — and it’s just a gut feeling — is that the piracy matter is a bigger stumbling block, and if PIF is willing to work with the Saudi government to make it come to an end, the takeover will come one step closer.

    You also get the impression that Premier League clubs would welcome the deal. In the short term, it would inject some liquidity into a league hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, but in the medium and long term there is little reason to believe Newcastle will be a threat on the pitch, because of the existing cost controls and safeguards. Whether it’s desirable for an authoritarian, unelected regime to own one-twentieth of one Britain’s biggest and most prestigious brands is another matter.

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