UK government pushed for Saudi-Newcastle takeover, emails reveal
The UK government believed that the potential failure of a takeover of Newcastle United football club posed an “immediate risk” to the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, according to a report by The Athletic.
In October 2021, a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) completed a buyout of the northeast England club.
Despite denying any involvement in the £300m takeover, emails seen by The Athletic appear to suggest many senior British government figures took an active role in promoting the buyout.
In one email, Richard Oppenheim, then UK deputy ambassador to Riyadh, sent a script to UK officials from 10 Downing Street and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) ahead of a phone call.
It stated: “It’s not for HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) to intervene in buying/selling football clubs. But HMG is not neutral about UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a crucial and valuable relationship with an important partner, regionally and globally.
“The purchase of Newcastle United by KSA’s sovereign wealth fund would be a valuable boost to the relationship and signal of intent for further Saudi investment in the north east.”
A July 2020 email from the FCDO's private secretary described the purchase of Newcastle United by the PIF as “a valuable boost to the relationship and a gateway for further Saudi investment,” and spoke of its failure as “the most immediate risk”.
Further documents showed that the government appointed a “senior interlocutor to impress HMG interests with the Premier League” ahead of its decision on the Newcastle takeover.
The UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Neil Compton, met PIF officials to discuss the buyout, according to the report.
It also found that the Department of International Trade (DIT) put together a “PR offer” for the Premier League, in what appeared to be an attempt to improve Saudi Arabia’s reputation.
In an April 2020 email, an FCDO official responded to a media appearance from the fiancee of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was speaking out against the takeover.
“Khashoggi’s [fiancee] has also spoken out. It was on the BBC this morning,” the official said. “We’ll do some quick work with DIT to ensure that their PR offer is being shared.”
Khashoggi, a former Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist, was murdered by Saudi agents at the country’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.
The government told The Athletic that it had “not had a role at any point in the takeover of Newcastle United,” adding that the buyout was “a matter for the two parties concerned”.
Separate from the takeover, one of the emails from 2018 revealed that the PIF aimed “to target direct investments amounting to $30 billion over a 10-year period into the UK".
In 2021, it was reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally called on former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene in the takeover, warning that there would be consequences for the relationship between the two countries if it failed to go through.
Jeed Basyouni, who leads the Middle East and North Africa division at Reprieve, told Middle East Eye the emails contradict the government's claims they were not involved in the takeover, and suggests they were "up to their necks in it"
"The UK government has no business acting as a lobbyist behind the scenes for one of the most repressive regimes in the world, one that executes protesters and child defendants," Basyouni said.
"The government must come clean about its role in facilitating the takeover and the Premier League must reinvestigate it in line with its new rules on owners who commit human rights abuses."
Campaigners have accused Saudi Arabia of using the Newcastle takeover to “sportswash” its much-maligned human rights record.
A small but vocal group of the club’s fans, who spoke to MEE last year, launched a campaign opposing the new owners, citing Saudi treatment of LGBTQ+ people and women’s rights defenders, and its involvement in the war in Yemen.
Previously, members of the Arab community in South Shields, a town near Newcastle whose Arab and Yemeni communities date back over a century, told MEE they opposed the Saudi takeover.
Earlier this year, lawyers representing the PIF claimed sovereign immunity in a court case involving the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league, stating that PIF and Newcastle United chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan was “a sitting minister of the government”.
That appeared to directly contradict assurances the Premier League was given that the Saudi state did not control Newcastle United. Premier League chief Richard Masters was asked about the issue last week in parliament, but said he was unable to comment.