After the takeover was announced on October 7, the Premier League said it had “received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club”.
A UK government spokesperson previously told The Athletic that the UK government “has not had a role at any point in the takeover of Newcastle United”.
However, 27 pages of newly obtained emails, released by the UK Foreign Office following a freedom of information request by The Athletic, shed fresh light on discussions between government departments and the Premier League, including:
- Nine days before the takeover, Neil Crompton, UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described being told by Chad Woodward, then the director of trade and investment for the UK government in Saudi Arabia, that the Premier League had in a conversation with another foreign office official “agreed to settle differences with the PIF so that their investment in Newcastle can go ahead”.
- Two meetings were held by Foreign Office officials with the Premier League over Microsoft Teams in the fortnight before the takeover was announced.
- On October 6, the day before the takeover’s announcement, an email to Woodward states that a Premier League official sent a message on WhatsApp to a foreign office employee, which is repeated verbatim in the email but almost entirely redacted.
- The Foreign Office had a communications plan ready to greet both the potential approval and rejection of the takeover from as far back as June 2020.
- On the day before the takeover was announced, a communications plan included the UK ambassador to Riyadh “welcoming the announcement on Twitter, congratulating the PIF, Newcastle United fans and welcoming investment in the north east, which fits with the (UK government’s) levelling up agenda”, as well as preparing a briefing note for Prime Minister Boris Johnson before a call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) four days after the deal was announced.
- The day before the takeover, the Foreign Office distributed its prepared “top lines”, presumably for expected media scrutiny on the matter. Stock questions included: “How has the government allowed a country responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to take control of one of the north east’s most important cultural assets?”
- A Foreign Office note also said that while some critics of the takeover might discuss “sportswashing”, the takeover represented a chance to show off Saudi’s progress in promoting female participation in sport.
- The emails suggest that the Premier League’s insistence on separation of control led to Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF and whose own lawyers described him as a “sitting minister” of the Saudi government, becoming a non-executive chairman and they would appoint “someone” (presumed to be Staveley) to run the club.
We requested communications between August 1 and October 31 in 2021 — the months leading up to and shortly after the announcement of the takeover on October 7. The Foreign Office delayed the emails’ release as it assessed factors including whether it could harm the UK’s “international relations” with Saudi Arabia.
Extensive parts of the emails’ contents have been redacted, with the government’s Information Rights Unit saying this is because “the disclosure of information detailing our relationship with the Saudi government could potentially damage the bilateral relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia”. It also stated some details were withheld to protect “commercial interests” and to “safeguard national security”.
The Premier League declined to formally comment for this story but senior sources, who were not authorised to speak publicly on the matter, maintained to The Athletic on Monday evening that the decision to allow the takeover to proceed in October 2021 was made by the Premier League Board based on the legally binding assurances received by the Premier League and not as a result of any external influence. They also said that their interactions with the UK state apparatus showed the government “being predisposed” to being helpful but insisted it did not sway the decision, while adding they had no recollection of discussing a PR offer.
The Premier League maintains that Newcastle is not controlled by the Saudi state, yet the email disclosures reveal the extent of UK state interest that surrounded the takeover.
In an email dated September 28, 2021, nine days before the takeover was announced, Crompton wrote an email to a Foreign Office colleague, whose name is redacted from the disclosures.
“Chad just briefed me on the Premier League’s conversation with you in which they had agreed to settle differences with the PIF so that their investment in Newcastle can go ahead,” he said. “Assuming the details are ironed out over the next fortnight, this will be big news here, and indeed in the north east (judging by the significant following of Newcastle United supporters). I understand the Premier League want to keep it private for now.”
Later that afternoon, Crompton received an email from Tony Kay OBE, the deputy director of the Iraq and Arabian Peninsula department of the Foreign Office. Kay writes “aye, positive news”, before warning that “we need to keep this on the tightest of holds” as “leaks (certainly from the government) would be disastrous”.
The emails also state that the Department of International Trade (DIT) was considering whether the investment minister, Gerry Grimstone, would welcome the announcement while the Foreign Office would also recommend private messages from UK ministers to both the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and to Saudi ministers. They said they would ensure that No 10 Downing Street would have a briefing ready before the prime minister’s planned call with MBS the following week, with a call between the pair subsequently taking place four days after the announcement of the takeover.
Attached to the background note on October 6, the Foreign Office distributed its prepared “top lines”. As well as the question relating to Khashoggi’s assassination, these included stock answers to, “Why has the government not intervened to prevent this deal, especially given Saudi Arabia’s history of human rights abuses?”
Despite the wording of these questions, the Premier League insisted only the next day in a public statement on its website that the Saudi state did not control the club, citing legally binding assurances.
Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist who had criticised MBS in the Washington Post. He was murdered at the Saudi embassy in the Turkish city of Istanbul in 2018, and according to a U.S. intelligence report, MBS is deemed responsible for approving the operation that killed him. MBS, who is the chair of the board of the Saudi PIF, has described these findings as flawed.
The Foreign Office’s suggested answers, presumably for ministers to use before media, included responses such as it not being “for the government to intervene in the buying and selling of football clubs”, while adding that “Saudi Arabia remains a foreign office human rights priority country and no aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights”. The responses also stated that the UK “has already sanctioned 20 individuals for their role in the Khashoggi murder”.
An email on October 7, the day of the takeover, between Foreign Office officials, describes a further conversation with the Premier League. This is heavily redacted but one clue to the workings of the separation between Newcastle and PIF may be found in a line that reads: “<Redacted> would be non-exe Chairman and they’d appoint someone to run the club.” The redacted in this case is presumed to be Al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF, who became non-executive chairman, while Staveley has a management contract to run the club. The email also said that Staveley would say “something in public on the values piece”, suggesting that the businesswoman would handle questions related to ethical concerns around the takeover, which she did during interviews following its completion.
The “strategic implications” section of an information note, approved by Kay, on October 6 and sent to the private secretary of then-UK Foreign Minister Liz Truss, demonstrates the extent to which the British state welcomed the takeover. The note says that PIF already has “circa $12bn” invested into the UK and that “this will likely lead to further investment in the north east (in partnership with the Reuben Brothers who are already significant investors in the area), hopefully replicating Emirati investment in the north west following the purchase of Manchester City“. It adds that local Members of Parliament (MPs) and fan groups had pushed for the deal to happen.
The note then suggests the takeover is a positive thing. It reads: “While there will be accusations of Saudi ‘sportswashing’, this actually provides an opportunity to expose significant Saudi reforms that have resulted in, for example, far greater female participation in sport within the Kingdom.”
Emails within the disclosure also say that a stated objective for the Foreign Office is to “offer UK PR (public relations) advice” on the inward investment, including how “the takeover of Newcastle presents an opportunity to promote a different image of Saudi Arabia in the UK”.
The government and the Premier League were asked whether the parties liaised on the PR of the takeover. While the extent of Premier League-government collaboration is unclear, there were emails between the Foreign Office, the UK embassy in Saudi Arabia and the UK Cabinet Office to discuss the lines that should be taken following the announcement of the takeover. “From memory, we have always stuck to these lines, comms plan-wise,” says one Foreign Office email before reeling off the line that the “UK government has not been involved in the takeover talks”.
An email on the evening of October 6 by Foreign Office official Woodward suggests this takeover is “all very good news for the UK” because of the “real prospect of regional investment in the north east”. He adds this all has “a levelling up slant and all very popular with red wall MPs and grassroots communities”, citing the gains in so-called “red wall” seats that had been made by the Conservative Party in the 2019 general election, when historically Labour-voting areas in the north of England turned blue.
This, he continued, had “all achieved without getting involved in the deal itself”. On October 7, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport sent out an email warning the trade and foreign offices: “To reiterate: as agreed with No 10, FCDO (the Foreign Office) and DIT are not to do proactive comms on this news at this stage. There is a long history to this takeover deal, where the media has often made suggestions of government involvement in the process from the centre.”
This would all appear to suggest that the government was eager to distance itself publicly from the takeover, and there is no evidence at all of direct involvement in negotiations between the bidding consortium and Mike Ashley, the previous owner of Newcastle, who sold the club to PIF. That, however, is a different matter to the question of whether the government sought to lobby both the bidder (PIF) and the Premier League to secure its desired outcome of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle.
The Premier League initially declined to approve the Newcastle takeover in the summer of 2020. At that time, the Premier League said its concerns centred on its view that the Saudi state would control the club if PIF completed a takeover. Yet this was also aggravated by the alleged piracy of the broadcaster beIN Sports by a service called beoutQ. This all mattered in the context of Newcastle because Qatar-based beIN was (and remains) a broadcast partner of the Premier League and the Saudi state was accused of being behind the piracy at the same time as the country’s sovereign wealth fund sought to acquire a Premier League club.
The British state did not give up hope, however. Crompton, the British ambassador to Saudi, spoke in an email in the summer of 2020 of a “possible opening to facilitate discussions and reassure the Premier League”. He further recommended that “seniors” from government departments and No 10 Downing Street join a call “to underline the wider HMG (UK government) interest in seeing this go through and explore ways in which we could help”. He added: “There are several ways in which HMG can seek to facilitate dialogue with both the PIF and Saudi authorities on this to come up with the assurances the Premier League seek.”
The British government also encouraged the Saudi authorities to act further on piracy. The aforementioned Tony Kay, deputy director of the Iraq and Arabian Peninsula department, approved a background note to Foreign Office officials on October 6, 2021, the day before the takeover, in which he said: “Two issues held the bid back. First, a sovereign wealth fund had never tried to buy a Premier League club directly before, resulting in questions about the ultimate beneficial owner. Second, there were unresolved problems related to piracy and broadcasting rights in Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the Qatar dispute, Saudi entity beoutQ began pirating Premier League content from Qatari beIN Sports. BeoutQ was shut down in August 2019 (following sustained diplomatic lobbying, including by HMG, US and EU).
“Pressure related to piracy has eased following beoutQ’s closure. The Saudi government has also established an Authority for Intellectual Property, which has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK Intellectual Property Office. Following Saudi efforts to resolve the Gulf dispute with Qatar in January, beIN Sports has frozen a $1bn lawsuit against Saudi Arabia and ceased lobbying against the Newcastle takeover. Separately, Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain has confirmed that it will play a match in Riyadh this winter. This afternoon, there is unconfirmed reporting that Saudi Arabia has lifted its four-year ban on beIN Sports.”
The emails detail how the “Head of beIn” was in Riyadh on the day before the Newcastle takeover announcement, when it was also announced that the broadcaster would return to screens in Saudi Arabia. Yet while the emails appear to suggest the government believes its work in tackling the piracy issue assisted the process, the Premier League insisted that it did not influence their decision-making.
Premier League sources reiterated on Monday night that it only approved the takeover when it received legally binding assurances that the Saudi Arabian government would not control Newcastle United, and the PIF and consortium agreed to consequences in the event such control does occur. The UK foreign office were approached for comment but did not respond at the point of publication.