Boris Johnson denies intervening after Premier League blocked Saudi Arabia’s £300m Newcastle takeover bid

Reports that Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman lobbied Prime Minister over PIF takeover described as ‘worrying’ by Amnesty International

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 12:19 pm
Updated Thursday, 15th April 2021, 1:02 pm
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson did NOT intervene in last summer's attempted Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, according to government officials.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund had agreed a £300million deal with current owner Mike Ashley, only for the deal to collapse amid scrutiny from the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test.

The PIF eventually withdrew from the deal last July, amid the Premier League's concerns over whether the Saudi state would own Newcastle and alleged state-backed piracy in the country, which included broadcasting of Premier League football.

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The Daily Mail reported Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman – who is also chairman of PIF – lobbied Johnson to reconsider the “wrong conclusion” reached by the Premier League over the takeover, and that Johnson then asked one of his top aides to investigate the matter.

A Government spokesman, however, said the sale had been a “commercial matter” and that the Government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks.

A Government spokesman told the Mirror: "While we welcome overseas investment, this was a commercial matter for the parties concerned and the Government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle United."

The 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 takeover is currently subject to an arbitration process.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters wrote to Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah last August to say that his organisation had made a “clear determination” over which entities would have control of the club and from whom it would need information, but that the consortium disagreed over the inclusion of one of those entities.

He added that an independent arbitral tribunal was offered to the consortium in recognition of this dispute, but that the consortium refused.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International, which has long seen the takeover as an attempt by the Saudi state to “sportwash” its reputation after a long history of alleged human rights abuses, have said recent claims involving the PM are ‘worrying’.

The human rights group’s UK director Kate Allen said: “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.”

Allen added: “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.”