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Did Boris Johnson Broker the Saudi Takeover of Newcastle United?

Boris Johnson
Credit: Chatham House, flickr

Even for a sport as controversial as football when it comes to the involvement of somewhat nefarious individuals, the Saudi government’s takeover of Newcastle United was next level.

Allegedly hiding behind the auspices of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF), a group specifically set up to re-invest the capital of the Saudi Crown Prince, a consortium featuring PIF, Amanda Staveley and the Reuben Brothers eventually got given the keys to the club in 2021.

It was a process that made many question the appropriateness of the so-called ‘fit and proper person’s’ test, which was designed to keep baddies out of the beautiful game. After all, the Saudi government don’t exactly have the best record when it comes to the advancement of basic human rights.

There were times that it looked as if the takeover bid would not be allowed, however it has recently been reported that the UK government – spearheaded by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, may have intervened to get the deal over the line.

The Guardian has, allegedly, received exclusive intelligence that confirms that ministers – principally Lord Gerry Grimstone, the minister for investment – had lobbied the Premier League to allow the deal to go through….despite the repeated protestations of Johnson that he had not been involved in the process.

Grimstone, the leader of the Office for Investment, reportedly met with Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman and representatives of the Saudi government to help grease the wheels of the takeover, which was – according to The Guardian’s source – described as being in the UK’s ‘strategic and economic interest’.

Friends In High Places

UK and Saudi Arabian Desk Flags

One of the stumbling blocks of PIF’s involvement in the Newcastle bid was their long-winded dispute with the Premier League over the TV rights in the Middle East.

The legal broadcaster was Qatari outfit BeIN, however Premier League games were being illegally shown in Saudi Arabia by a pirate station called beoutQ – an enterprise allegedly backed by the Saudi government.

Grimstone reportedly acted as a go-between to facilitate conversation between the warring parties, knowing that peace would be vital in order for the Premier League to ratify the Newcastle deal.

The Guardian also alleges that Hoffman claimed that the UK government had ‘put pressure’ on the Premier League to approve the takeover, and he would later resign as chairman after a number of clubs hit out at officials for allowing the deal to happen.

Boris Johnson and his ministers have worked very hard to bring Saudi Arabia on board as allies to the UK, and the Saudis have begun to invest heavily in local infrastructure – seen as vital in the wake of Brexit. The war in Ukraine has also strengthened the need for a connection to another source of oil and natural resources.

The Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, insists that ‘there were conversations with government, but there was no pressure applied.’

When he was asked if the Saudi government would be directly involved in the running of Newcastle United, which was expressly forbidden under the terms of the takeover, Masters replied:

“I don’t think we would know. [But] I don’t think it is going to happen.”