The consortium close to completing a takeover at Newcastle United does not expect the Premier League’s owners and directors test to pose any problems but Amnesty International has raised serious concerns about Saudi Arabia’s involvement.
The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) has joined forces with the Yorkshire-born financier Amanda Staveley and the UK-based Reuben Brothers to reach a £310m agreement with Mike Ashley to end his 13-year ownership of Newcastle. The group is undergoing mandatory Premier League background checks which should be completed within the month.
PIF, set to assume 80% control of the club, is one of the world’s wealthiest sovereign wealth funds and the investment tool of Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Amnesty claims PIF’s move into English football is “glamourising” the Kingdom’s “abysmal human rights record” and accuses PIF of using Newcastle as a “PR tool”.
However, sources close to the prospective new owners have a very different view and are adamant the Premier League tests are a formality. The sources point to the consortium’s diverse composition and suggest the Saudis’ willingess to embrace outside involvement is indicative of a Gulf country demonstrating its willingness to change and embrace 21st-century modernity.
It also points out that the takeover blueprint includes plans to fund economic regeneration on Tyneside in addition to significant investment in club infrastructure and new players.
While Staveley’s Dubai-based company, PCP Capital Partners, is fronting the deal Reuben Brothers has an impressive business pedigree and Jamie Reuben, the 32-year-old son of David Reuben, is, like Staveley, scheduled to take a seat on the board, although he would first need to resign his current directorship at QPR.
According to the most recent Sunday Times Rich List, Reuben Brothers is part of the UK’s second richest family, worth £18.66bn and already has extensive property interests on Tyneside.
Amnesty, though, is deeply concerned about the Saudis’ controlling stake and Felix Jakens, its UK head of campaigns, is fearful the coronavirus virus-induced economic emergency could result in the takeover receiving less scrutiny than might otherwise have been expected.
“We still need to see it for what it is: Saudi Arabia attempting to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football as a PR tool to distract from the country’s abysmal human rights record,” Jakens said. “With the world in crisis there’s a risk that this deal could go ahead without the degree of scrutiny it should receive.
“Under the Mohammad bin Salman regime, Saudi human rights defenders have been subjected to a brutal crackdown, with numerous peaceful activists jailed – including Loujain al-Hathloul and other brave women’s rights campaigners.
“There’s been a blatant whitewash over Jamal Khashoggi’s grisly murder, and the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen has a disgraceful record of launching indiscriminate attacks on homes and hospitals.”
News of Ashley’s impending exit has left the majority of Newcastle fans exultant but Jakens urges supporters to examine Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and question whether this buyout is really about sportswashing.
“While it’s not for us to say who should own Newcastle United, all businesses need to safeguard against any possible complicity in human rights violations,” he said. “Football is no different.
“To some degree, sportswashing can be countered if interested parties are prepared to break its spell. We’d call on Newcastle United staff and fans to familiarise themselves with the dire human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and be prepared to speak out about it.”
Ashley is staying at his holiday home in Florida and Newcastle have declined to comment on any aspect of the takeover but Yasir al-Ramayyan, the governor of PIF, is expected to become the club’s new chairman.
In late January documents lodged at Companies House listed Al-Ramayyan as a director of a newly incorporated company, NCUK Investment Ltd.
For the moment everything is contingent on Premier League checks, thought to have begun last week. These normally take two weeks but the logistical problems posed by the pandemic could prolong that process to a month.
Under plans dubbed “Project Zebra”, meanwhile, the consortium is believed to have, among other potential appointments, lined up a director of football to fill a role unoccupied at Newcastle.