Thu, 01 Dec 2022

Premier League team Newcastle United were taken over by a Saudi investment fund last year

A former high-ranking member of the UK's ruling Conservative Party sought advice from Premier League officials on how to progress Saudi Arabia's then-stalled takeover of Premier League team Newcastle United, documents have revealed.

Lord Gerry Grimstone, who was at the time the UK's Minister for Investment, petitioned Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman for advice on how to identify "a way forward" for the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), documents showed, to complete what was a controversial takeover of the football club.

The UK government had previously and repeatedly stated that it had no involvement in the takeover process.

The relevant documents were obtained via a freedom of information request and investigated by The Guardian.

Grimstone, who has extensive ties in Saudi Arabia, was appointed to the role in March 2020 by former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

He indicated to Hoffman that he was able to "confirm from the highest levels of the Saudi Government whether this is deliverable and we all will then know where this stands."

The input from Grimstone appears to contradict prior statements from Johnson in April 2021 in which he said "the government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle."

A spokesperson for the UK Department of International Trade (DIT) responded to prior reporting in The Guardian in May and said that Grimstone did not attempt to influence Premier League officials in their decision making, adding that he was merely "keep[ing] abreast of large investments potentially coming into the UK."

Among the information in the documents released following the freedom of information request appears to be an indication that the stalled takeover bid was seen as potentially damaging for political relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia.

It also emerged that Hoffman told Grimstone that he was advised by the Premier League's legal counsel that because the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) controlled the Public Investment Fund, that would mean that the Saudi state would be required to pass the Premier League's "fit and proper persons" test - a mandatory requirement for any figure of consortium attempting to purchase an English top-flight club.

However, the reporting in The Guardian states that the Saudi hierarchy rejected this legal advice and indicated they would not submit to the owners' test. It was also suggested that the Saudi state would very likely fail the test, and lead to further complications for the takeover. 

Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly accused of attempting to "sports-wash" its reputation by hosting high profile sporting events within its territory in a bid to launder accusations of extreme human rights abuses.

It has also been linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

It is thought that this wasn't flagged by the ownership test, but rather by Saudi television pirating of sports events.

Grimstone would indicate in a memo that he "discussed possible ways to solve this conundrum". These potential solutions were redacted in the documents. 

Despite the apparent efforts to facilitate a deal in 2020, the takeover did not progress at the time and was only made official in October of last year.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continued to refuse to submit to the Premier League owners test, prompting the Premier League to state they had received "legally binding assurances" that the Saudi state would not control Newcastle United.

Grimstone resigned as a UK minister in July, shortly after Boris Johnson's own departure as PM, but spoke of his pride at "getting on for Pound 50 billion in investment.

That sum included two separate Pound 10 billion deals with funds from Qatar and Abu Dhabi. 

Newcastle United avoided relegation from the Premier League last season, thanks in large part due to money spent on players during the January transfer window following the takeover. They are generally considered to be among the richest football clubs in the world since the Saudi purchase.

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