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For the past several years one of the fiercest rivalries in the Middle East has taken place on football pitches across Europe, but Saudi Arabia has been forced to watch on the sidelines as regional rivals dominate the sport with Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain and Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City.
Now, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has changed that by agreeing to buy Premier League football club Newcastle United in a deal led by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. The path to the £305m takeover, however, was hardly straightforward. Saudi Arabia and its British partners on the deal, financier Amanda Staveley, and the billionaire Reuben brothers struggled for two years to get a transaction across the line. That was despite the fact that the British retail tycoon Mike Ashley, who has owned Newcastle since 2007, was desperate to offload the club.
A deal that was first agreed with Ashley in April 2020 collapsed just a few months later after the Saudi Arabia-led group failed to get clearance from Premier League officials for the deal. League executives determined that since the ultimate owner of Newcastle would be Saudi Arabia, the Gulf state would need to satisfy the league's owners and directors' test. Under those rules potential buyers could be blocked if they have committed an act that would be considered a criminal offence in the UK, even if it wasn't illegal wherever it occurred.
That was problematic, given Saudi Arabia's alleged involvement in beoutQ, a pirate TV network that streamed events that Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports had spent billions to acquire, including Premier League matches. beIN, the Premier League's biggest overseas broadcaster, lobbied intensely against the takeover, as did human rights campaigners who said Saudi Arabia was sports washing its image following the brutal murder of veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Ashley began legal proceedings against the Premier League, but the takeover had little chance of being revived as long as Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of a regional blockade against Qatar, which included banning beIN from operating in the kingdom. But a detente between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has led to friendlier relations following the election of US President Joe Biden in late 2020. Just weeks before the deal was finally approved assurances were provided that Saudi Arabia would unblock beIN.
Other questions continue to hang over the deal. Premier League officials refuse to outline a set of legally-binding assurances they say would guarantee Saudi Arabia would not control the club. Meanwhile, 18 of the Premier League's 20 teams have voted in favour of a temporary ban on Newcastle signing lucrative sponsorship deals with entities linked to the owners, which they believe could give the club an unfair advantage. Many Newcastle fans, however, are grateful to have a new owner who will plough money into their club and to see the back of Ashley. And the deal is a reminder that in the UK and in football, money always trumps everything else.