Major Obstacle Removed in Saudi Bid for Newcastle

LONDON — Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund moved closer to acquiring a Premier League soccer team after the kingdom reached an agreement that resolved the league’s biggest objection to a proposed sale of Newcastle United.

A $400 million deal in which Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley, would cede control of the team to an ownership group led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund had been reached more than a year ago. But the sale appeared to collapse over a yearslong dispute between Saudi Arabia and beIN Media Group, the Qatar-based television network that owned the Premier League’s broadcast rights in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia had since 2017 blocked beIN from operating inside its borders amid a diplomatic dispute with Qatar, its tiny but hugely wealthy neighbor. BeIN, the Premier League and other major sports property owners later accused Saudi Arabia of hosting and operating a rogue television network that pirated billions of dollars’ worth of content that had been sold to the Qatari broadcaster.

The Newcastle sale was drawn into that dispute last year when beIN officials lobbied Premier League officials and the British government not to approve the takeover. The league never had to make a decision: Facing mounting public pressure and citing “an unforeseen prolonged process,” the Saudi group withdrew its bid.

In the past year, though, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a group of their neighbors have rebuilt diplomatic and economic ties by ending a three-year blockade of Qatar and normalizing diplomatic relations.

Under Premier League rules, prospective buyers of league teams are required to be vetted in order to meet a so-called fit-and-proper standard required of new owners. The group involved in the Newcastle takeover, which also includes the British businesswoman Amanda Staveley and two billionaire property-investor brothers, walked away after the league spent months deliberating over the sale.

At the time, the most problematic issue for the Premier League was the proposed sale of one of its members to an entity that the league itself had accused of harming the business of an important commercial partner. With an agreement to resolve the beIN piracy dispute in place, there is nothing in the Premier League’s rules to block the sale of a team to an entity that is an arm of a nation state. Manchester City, for example, the reigning Premier League champion, is controlled by a member of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates.

Smoothing the pathway to a sale could be a separate legal issue as well. Infuriated by the collapse of his deal to sell Newcastle, Ashley in May filed a lawsuit against the Premier League, seeking millions of dollars in damages and accusing the league of blocking the sale. The Premier League was not known to have ever previously blocked a sale, and with the Saudi group’s withdrawal, it appeared not to have done so with Newcastle, despite Ashley’s claims.

A Saudi takeover would be the latest infusion of sovereign Gulf money into European soccer, joining owners not only at City but also Qatar’s ownership of the French champion Paris St.-Germain. The seemingly bottomless resources of those ownership groups have since built teams that are now firmly established as among the best in Europe, and reshaped the modern soccer economy.

Newcastle’s long-suffering fans have been hoping to enjoy the same rapid rise ever since news of the Saudi interest first emerged. Supporters of the club have taken to social media by the thousands to champion the sale, signed petitions and even filed legal action against the Premier League to push the takeover forward.

Newcastle narrowly missed winning the Premier League title twice in the mid-1990s but has not won a major domestic trophy since the 1955 F.A. Cup. The last of the club’s four English titles came in 1927, and the club’s more recent history has been dominated by fan opposition to Ashley, the retail tycoon who acquired the team in 2007.

The Saudi-led investors had proposed spending as much as $320 million over five years to turn Newcastle into a competitive force in the Premier League and to invest in infrastructure around its stadium.

While the Premier League’s glamour and global reach have long made it a magnet for the world’s superrich — team owners currently include American billionaires, a Russian oligarch, a Chinese holding company and a Gulf royal — the prospect of a Saudi state buyout has led to scrutiny never seen before.

When the agreement was first announced, human rights groups and even the widow of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi wrote to the Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, to urge him to block the sale because of the involvement of the Public Investment Fund, which is led by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

That type of criticism is likely to resurface if Saudi Arabia resurrects, and completes, its deal with Ashley.

Buying into a major international soccer league with a global reach would follow similar recent forays into the sports industry by Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has for years made plans to develop its economy beyond oil, and sports and entertainment have emerged as key parts of a broad investment strategy. Millions have been spent so far on attracting boxing, golf and motor sports events to Saudi Arabia, but officials are aware that none carry the appeal of soccer.

Earlier this year, the head of the country’s soccer federation called on FIFA to study the possibility of increasing the frequency of the men’s World Cup to every two years instead of every four. Saudi Arabia is working behind the scenes to win the rights to host the event.

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