lance at some recent headlines concerning Newcastle United and it would seem safe to assume that the Saudi Arabian flag is already fluttering high above St James’ Park. For the moment, though, fans mesmerised by speculation that Philippe Coutinho, Gareth Bale, Harry Kane and Kalidou Koulibaly are all Tyneside-bound must make do with photographs of an estate agent’s “Sold” sign deposited outside the Milburn Stand.
It was a joke intended to celebrate the apparently imminent end of Mike Ashley’s thoroughly miserable 13-year ownership of Newcastle and mark a long-mooted, largely Saudi-funded £300m takeover of the club. Yet, for the moment at least, the laughter has stopped.
Two months have passed since that “Sold” board went up but, despite contracts having been exchanged and Ashley receiving a non-refundable £17m deposit, the retail tycoon still holds the keys to St James’ Park. And much fevered debate about whether the new owners – a consortium featuring Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the billionaire Reuben brothers and the financier Amanda Staveley – might hire Rafael Benítez or Mauricio Pochettino as manager has been replaced by acute anxiety.
Eight weeks after initiating its owners’ and directors’ test, the Premier League still has to sign the deal off. Steve Bruce – deservedly – remains Newcastle’s manager and the club has become an apparent pawn in Saudi Arabia’s acrimonious proxy war with Qatar.
In 2017 Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed all ties with Qatar over the country’s alleged support of extremist groups and interference in neighbours’ affairs. Now the repercussions of that once parochial squabble have reached Gallowgate, and Geordies fear their dreams of returning to the Champions League may prove a cruel chimera. Although sources close to the Newcastle deal remain confident the takeover will be rubber-stamped in the next week or so, geopolitics have replaced Joelinton’s goal drought as the stuff of Newcastle fans’ nightmares.
Given that the Premier League owners’ and directors’ test was not designed for an era when global powers would attempt to enhance their international images by purchasing English football clubs, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and Jamal Khashoggi’s grisly murder fall well outside the league’s remit.
Broadcast piracy is a different matter. As revealed exclusively by my colleague Sean Ingle, the Premier League has received an advance copy of a World Trade Organization report which, it is understood, makes a direct link between the Saudi government and the pirate service beoutQ, which has illegally streamed Premier League matches transmitted by Qatar’s beIN Sports.
Sources close to the buyers maintain the issue has not raised any “red flags” during the course of exhaustive inquiries conducted by the Premier League’s intellectual property lawyers. They say, although it may sound like semantics, there is a clear legal separation between PIF and the government. Moreover, any individual Saudis subject to the Premier League tests have no capacity to control broadcast piracy. Critics counter that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, is PIF’s chairman.
Considering beIN sports currently has a £500m, three-year overseas broadcast deal with England’s top tier, it is all highly sensitive. Yet given the WTO inquiry began in 2018, this was a train all parties could see coming down the tracks, and the consortium’s lawyers were apparently well prepared. Staveley’s camp suggests talk of hitches reflects spin from Qatar and beIN Sports.
Even so, Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, finds himself in a diplomatic tight spot. With the government body swerving the controversy in a manner Matt Hancock would surely delight in were he watching Allan Saint-Maximin – the health secretary is an ardent Newcastle fan who recently auctioned his precious black and white player autographed shirt for a hospital charity – Masters is braced for a backlash. Reject the deal and its exciting new football narrative, and PIF could well initiate legal action; pass it through and, well, bite the Qatari broadcast hand that feeds you.
Then there’s the bigger picture. In declaring the issue a matter for the Premier League the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, did also, rather pointedly, reflect that the UK enjoys “good relations with Saudi Arabia”.
As Tynesiders desperate to bid Ashley farewell scan flight-tracking apps for planes routed from Riyadh to Newcastle – willing a landing before the UK’s quarantine rules kick in – Masters seems in urgent need of a string of Arabic worry beads.