Saudi group completes takeover of Newcastle United

But the Gulf kingdom has also been accused of 'sportswashing' with S$555m deal

A Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United has received the green light from the English Premier League, despite warnings from Amnesty International yesterday that the deal represents "sportswashing" of the Gulf kingdom's human rights record.

A consortium featuring Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), PCP Capital Partners and billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben struck a deal worth a reported £300 million (S$554.6m) to buy the club from unpopular owner Mike Ashley in April 2020.

However, the controversial takeover bid hit the rocks last year after an outcry from Qatar-based beIN Sports, a major television rights holder of the EPL.

The broadcaster, which extended its rights for the English top flight for the Middle East and North African region earlier this year until 2025 at a cost of US$500m (S$679.1m), was banned by Saudi Arabia in 2017 at the start of a diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar, which ended in January.

Tensions between the states have eased significantly this year and the Saudis' ban on beIN is set to be lifted, with Riyadh also seeking to settle Qatar's US$1 billion arbitration claim over pirate broadcasts to Saudi audiences by the beoutQ network.

The PIF, chaired by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, is reportedly set to take an 80 per cent stake under the deal.

The takeover could transform the Magpies' fortunes - despite regular attendances of 50,000 at St James' Park, Newcastle have not won a major trophy since 1969.

Current owner Ashley has been deeply unpopular in his 14 years in charge, during which the club have twice been relegated from the EPL before bouncing back into English football's lucrative top flight.

But Amnesty has urged the EPL to consider Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

"Ever since this deal was first talked about, we said it represented a clear attempt by the Saudi authorities to sportswash their appalling human rights record with the glamour of top-flight football," Amnesty International's UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia faced international condemnation following the brutal murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate three years ago.

In February, US intelligence released a report that accused MBS of approving the murder, an assessment strongly rejected by the Saudis.

Some Newcastle fans are in a dilemma over the club's new owners.

Channel 4 News presenter Alex Thomson tweeted: "As a lifelong Newcastle United supporter I feel sick this morning.

"No time for Ashley but he doesn't murder and dismember journalists or chop people's heads off or treat women as third class humans on an industrial scale. What the hell has 'football' become?"

But a recent poll by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) showed that 93.8 per cent of them were in favour of the takeover, given the dismal results of late.

"Under this ownership, there has been no ambition, effectively no investment and no hope for a sporting entity that hasn't been a sporting entity. It's been there to survive and nothing more," an NUST spokesman told AFP.

Former Newcastle defender Warren Barton told Sky Sports that some fans are in tears over the takeover.

He said: "I've been on social media reaching out to people and I've had people crying saying all they've known is the time of Mike Ashley.

"All this fan base and city have always wanted is respect that it deserves and they haven't had that."

Currently managed by Steve Bruce, Newcastle are without a win in their opening seven games of the EPL season and sit second from bottom.

It is a far cry from the 1990s.

Managed by Kevin Keegan, the Magpies finished third in the EPL in 1993/94, their first season back in the top flight.

Dubbed "The Great Entertainers", Newcastle finished runners-up in 1995/96.

With local boy Alan Shearer signing for a then-world record £15m, they looked odds-on to win the title the following season but they again finished behind Manchester United.

Keegan left in 1997 with Kenny Dalglish finishing out the 1996/97 season. The Magpies also lost back-to-back FA Cup finals in 1998 and 1999 under Dalglish and then Ruud Gullit.

After a difficult few years, Bobby Robson staged a renaissance with fourth- and third-placed finishes and a Uefa Cup semi-final run, only to be sacked in 2004.

The transformation of Manchester City four years after that - following a takeover from Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, is the template for Newcastle to follow.

Before Abu Dhabi's investment, City had not won a major trophy since 1976, but the English champions have clinched five of the past 10 EPL titles. - AFP, REUTERS