Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, a.k.a Public Investment Fund (PIF), completed a buyout of Premier League club Newcastle United on Thursday giving hope to fans dreaming of a first title in almost a century but worrying human rights activists that the kingdom had gained a foothold in the world’s richest football league.
The flow of wealth from billionaires is not new and in the recent past money from Middle East has found its way to the top rungs of football.
The Premier League, Newcastle United Football Club and St James Holdings Limited settled the dispute over the takeover of the club by the consortium of PIF, PCP Capital Partners and RB Sports & Media on Thursday.
Following the completion of the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test, the club has been sold to the consortium with immediate effect.
The initial move for the takeover in 2020 was turned down by the Club Owners over various disputes including the human rights concerns flagged by activists.
Now, the Public Investment Fund has offered assurances to the Premier League that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and in turn the state, will not have any say in the team.
PIF has bought 80% of the club — which is in the relegation zone after seven matches — with the wealthy British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners owning the rest.
But does that solve all the issues that has been plaguing Newcastle? No.
Sportswashing of vital issues
Many activists have alleged that the MBS and Saudi Arabia are using this to cleanse their reputation globally and to shift the discussion from the lack of democracy in the country. The process is called sportswashing.
Many countries have indulged in this in football, racing and other sports.
The Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), which owns the Manchester City club, is funded by Sheikh Mansour, billionaire and the deputy Prime Minister of Abu Dhabi.
He also owns City Football Group, which has a stake in Mumbai City FC – part of the Indian Super League. They have also made an investment in various other clubs.
Elsewhere in France, Paris-Saint Germain is owned by Emir of Qatar Tamim Al Thami, through Qatar Sports Investment (QSI). The QSI is a subsidiary of sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investment Authority (QIA).
The QSI and PSG are run by Al-Khelaifi , a minister in the Emir’s government.
Human rights organisations, activists are pointing out that such big investments by sovereign funds are attempts to cleanse the reputation of the countries on the global stage.
Following their neighbours, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has moved to take over the long-troubled club Newcastle United via the country’s PIF which is headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
The Crown Prince has two images, one of the reformer and the other, which causes concern, the image of an authoritarian.
The oil-rich country has been long known for human right abuses, deaths in Yemen, discrimination and repressive laws against women among other issues. Moreover, the Crown Prince is said to have allegedly ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a strong Saudi critic.
Football’s future with billionaire investors
The Premier League draws attention across the globe, with the names of even the smaller clubs, owners, players remembered by millions. That deep reach also means deep impact, which billionaires, brands, governments are after.
The downside of the same is the negative effects it has on smaller clubs and lower leagues. The gap between the rich and poor in football is huge and the effects of the same were seen last year when matches were held behind closed doors.
The lower leagues struggled to conduct business and on the other hand, the rich clubs planned to start a league for their own. The European Super League was in the end abandoned by the majority of rich clubs owing to pressure from fans but that was the example of what abundant wealth will do to the beautiful game.
Newcastle United’s fall and fans’ struggle
The takeover ends the 14-year ownership by British retail tycoon Mike Ashley, who has been widely viewed as a figure of scorn in the one-club city.
His ownership has been marked by chronic underinvestment in the playing squad, his use of Newcastle as a vehicle to promote his business interests, and of a general lack of ambition despite the club attracting regular home crowds of more than 50,000, the Associated Press reported.
Newcastle has not won a major trophy since the 1955 FA Cup and its last league title was in 1927.
Supporters descended on the club’s St. James’ Park stadium, some chanting “we are Saudis, we do what we want” and others singing “we’ve got our club back” amid the promise of long-desired 300-million-pound investment.