Newcastle owner Mike Ashley is eagerly awaiting developments amid reports Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene in the proposed sale of the club.
The PA news agency understands the sportswear magnate is privately delighted by both the Daily Mail report that Bin Salman urged the British Government to help remove stumbling bocks in the £300million-plus takeover, and the emergence of an email chain between Government departments and the Premier League as it carried out its owners’ and directors’ tests last summer.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, of which Bin Salman is the chairman, is the majority partner in a consortium also involving Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers, which agreed a takeover deal with Ashley in April last year.
However after 17 weeks of deliberation, during which Ashley is understood to have been repeatedly briefed that there were “no red flags”, the Premier League had not made a decision either way and the consortium formally withdrew its offer in July.
Kate Allen, the UK director of human rights organisation Amnesty International, said in a statement released to the PA news agency that the Mail report illustrated the takeover was “always more than just a commercial transaction” and that in reality it was an attempt by the Middle East state to ‘sportswash’ its reputation.
However, Ashley, who is waiting for an ongoing arbitration process to reach the hearing stage, believes there are questions to be answered with a series of email exchanges between Whitehall and the governing body published by the Evening Chronicle suggesting that at one point a decision might have been just days away.
The businessman bought the Magpies for £134.4million in 2007, but has been trying to sell it for much of the time since and as far as he is concerned, a deal which he believes could give the club the spending power he has been unable to provide has been done.
Supporters’ anger has mounted since the takeover’s apparent collapse, sparking claims – denied by Premier League chief executive Richard Masters in a letter to Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah in August – that rival clubs had objected to its approval.
The Daily Mail reported Bin Salman had privately urged Johnson in June to reconsider the “wrong conclusion” reached by the Premier League over the £300million deal, and that Johnson then asked one of his top aides to investigate the matter.
Amnesty director Allen told PA: “The bid to buy Newcastle was a blatant example of Saudi sportswashing, so it’s worrying that the prime minister would accede in any way to pressure from the crown prince over the deal.
“Reports that Mohammed Bin Salman made threats about possible damage to UK-Saudi relations if the deal didn’t go ahead only illustrates that this was always more than just a commercial transaction within the football world.
“At the time that the crown prince was putting this pressure on No 10, the world was still reeling from the fall-out over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi human rights activists like Loujain Al Hathloul were languishing in jail, and Saudi warplanes were indiscriminately bombing Yemen.
“This whole tangled affair only underlines how there needs to be a proper overhaul of the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test to provide proper human rights scrutiny of who is trying to buy into the glamour and prestige of English football.”
A Government spokesman said the sale had been a “commercial matter” and that the Government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks.
The Mail report comes after Johnson this week ordered a review into the collapse of the financial firm Greensill Capital amid concern over former Prime Minister David Cameron’s lobbying on its behalf.
“We expect the English Premier League to reconsider and correct its wrong conclusion,” the prince is said to have warned the Prime Minister.
In a message to his private office, Johnson said: “One for Sir Edward” – a reference to Lord Udny-Lister, who had not been ennobled at the time.
Lord Udny-Lister reportedly told the Prime Minister: “I’m on the case. I will investigate.”
Lord Udny-Lister told the Mail: “The Saudis were getting upset. We were not lobbying for them to buy it or not to buy it. We wanted (the Premier League) to be straightforward and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, don’t leave (the Saudis) dangling.”
The Premier League has declined to comment on the Mail and Evening Chronicle reports.