DUBAI/MANCHESTER (Reuters) - A bid by a Saudi Arabian state fund to secure ownership of Newcastle United is drawing scrutiny, but even if it succeeds it is unlikely that the petrodollars will transform the Premier League club into a powerhouse in the near future.
The prospect of the Saudi bid fuelling a rapid rise to the top, in the manner of Manchester City’s four title successes under owners from the United Arab Emirates, has thrilled many Newcastle fans, but several analysts believe that the investment impact may not be on such a scale.
A group fronted by British financier Amanda Staveley, with an expected 80% investment from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF and 10 percent involvement from billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben, have made a reported 300 million pound ($375 million) bid to buy the club from British businessman Mike Ashley.
The proposal faces some early obstacles and the prospect of Saudi ownership of a top English club has been condemned by human rights groups.
Saudi Arabia was internationally criticised after the 2018 murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, the Yemen war and the detention of several women’s rights activists.
Added to that there is the long-running dispute with Qatari company BeInSport regarding allegations of Saudi tolerance of ‘pirate’ broadcasts in the kingdom — an issue which has been raised by some parliamentarians in the UK.
The proposed takeover is now being reviewed as part of the Premier League’s “owners’ and directors’ test”, which was previously known as the ‘fit and proper person’s test’.
Investors wanting to become owners of English professional clubs have to show they have no unspent criminal conviction for fraud, are not bankrupt, and have not been banned from serving as a company director.
Newcastle supporters, however, are mostly excited at the prospect of major investment in their team, which has not featured in the Champions League since 2004 and has not won the English title since 1927 or FA Cup since 1955, despite claiming one of the country’s largest fan bases.
The timing of the bid, though, is far from ideal — the Premier League is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday, Moody’s Investors Service cut Saudi Arabia’s outlook to “negative” from “stable”, saying the oil price crash has raised fiscal risks for the Gulf nation.
“It is a relatively risky undertaking at a time when it looks like the kingdom will need a lot of liquid assets to finance deficits and maintain its currency peg,” says Steffen Hertog, Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.
Hertog, like a number of observers, believes the Saudi involvement is aimed at improving the country’s influence and image outside of its borders but says economic realities may limit PIF’s ambitions.
“It definitely is part of an Abu Dhabi style soft power strategy, but I am not sure how much extra money they will pour into the club. Given current fiscal developments and the travails of some of the PIF’s other assets, there are likely to be constraints to Saudi generosity,” he said.
Manchester City’s UAE owners have been closely involved in the major decision-making at the club with Khaldoon Al Mubarak chairman since September 2008 but that path may not be followed by the Saudis.
“PIF does not have the experience or capacity to be ‘hands on’ so would likely take a back seat,” says Neil Quilliam, CEO of Gulf-focused consultancy Castlereagh Associates.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan addressed, in a television interview on Saturday, the issue of investments abroad, without directly mentioning PIF’s potential bid for Newcastle.
“The investments are highly important because they have returns we can use in case of a crisis to curb the deficit. If we use the reserves, we consume the assets and won’t have any returns.
“Also, these types of crises create investment opportunities. Many companies reduce their investments, which creates opportunities to invest in them,” he told Al Arabiya news channel.
PIF manages over $300 billion in assets. It has been in existence since 1971, but became a more active investor since 2015 when it started reporting to a high-level economic body headed by the kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
PIF has been tasked with delivering on Prince Mohammed’s ambitious economic transformation drive to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil revenues.
The fund is headed by former Saudi banker Yasir al-Rumayyan, whose title is governor and is seen as close to Prince Mohammed.
Financial sources have told Reuters that the crown prince had a say on many strategic PIF decisions, such as Softbank’s Vision fund investment.
Writing by Simon Evans, additional reporting by Kirstin Ridley and Simon Evans, editing by Pritha Sarkar