Newcastle United’s proposed takeover by a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium has been delayed because of a lack of clarity over who would be in charge at the club.
Sixteen weeks after documents relating to a £300m takeover were registered with the Premier League, the deal is still being scrutinised under its owners’ and directors’ test.
But it is understood compliance requires greater certainty as to who would have ultimate responsibility at St James’ Park.
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The bid has been led by British financier Amanda Staveley, but Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF) is set to take an 80% stake.
PIF’s chairman is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and it appears the Premier League’s lawyers are struggling to establish the precise links between the consortium and the Saudi government.
This is crucial given the television rights piracy issues that have dogged the saga, with Saudi Arabia denying claims it facilitated the illegal streaming of sports events in the Middle East.
The Premier League, PIF and Magpies owner Mike Ashley have all declined to comment, but with only seven weeks until the new season starts, patience is starting to wear thin on all sides.
On Saturday, manager Steve Bruce spoke for Newcastle fans when he said: “We need a decision and we need one quickly.”
The potential takeover has been complicated by television piracy issues and alleged human right abuses.
Families of prisoners held in Saudi Arabia have told BBC Sport that they will “not stay silent” even if the deal goes through.
There is also keen interest in Newcastle from American businessman Henry Mauriss, who is willing to offer £350m for the club, who finished 13th in the Premier League standings.
BBC Sport has been told by a source that an exclusivity clause held between Ashley and the Saudi-backed consortium has come to an end.
That could offer an opportunity for Mauriss’ camp to capitalise should the bid fall through.
So, in the meantime, it is all eyes back on Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and its board. It will make the call on whether the prospective owners have broken any laws and meet the required standards to protect the league’s reputation and image.
Sources have said that although Bin Salman is the chair of PIF, he is not involved with its day-to-day running, so questions about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record are not relevant to the bid.
What are the outstanding issues?
More than 97% of Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust members are in favour of the takeover, and many fans have dismissed the manner in which the media has raised issues which could derail the Saudi bid.
Given their significance and complexity, however, those issues have been hard to ignore.
TV piracy in Saudi Arabia is a huge problem for the Premier League to contend with, especially as it has previously complained about it.
The World Trade Organization said there had been an infringement of intellectual property rights via the illegal beoutQ service, but in an apparent response to that ruling, Saudi Arabia then barred beIN Sports from operating.
Its service is the only legal way of watching Premier League football in the country. Saudi Arabia has always denied aiding the beoutQ operation and has insisted there is no link between its government and the alleged piracy.
There have also been appeals to the Premier League and fans about how Saudi Arabia disregards human rights, which Masters said would be “fully considered”.
Why are Saudi families concerned by takeover?
Families of prisoners held in the kingdom have told BBC Sport that allowing a Saudi takeover would “legitimise” the regime that “commits horrendous crimes”.
The takeover goes to the core of the sports-washing idea that many human rights organisations have raised. They say that if the Arab state is associated with the globally positive image of the Premier League, it would gloss over the abuses that occur in the country.
Lina al-Hathloul says her sister Loujain, a human rights activist, is one such example. Loujain campaigned for women’s rights to drive; according to her sister, she has been in prison for two-and-a-half years and has been tortured, sexually harassed and held in solitary confinement for eight months.
The Saudi government says she and other activists were detained for conspiring with “hostile entities”, while Bin Salman told CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2019 that releasing her was not his decision to make. He added: “If this [torture] is correct, it is very heinous. The Saudi laws forbid torture.”
But in an appeal to Newcastle fans, Lina said: “I want to tell them that their everyday life is very different from ours. My sister is in prison just because one of her demands was for women to drive.
“Saudi Arabia will be embarrassed if at every game they have protests. Whatever the decision is at the end, fans have leverage, they can ask for the detainees to be released.”
Areej al-Sadhan, whose brother Abdulrahman is a humanitarian worker for Red Crescent and has been in prison for more than two years, said hundreds of families like theirs were affected.
She added: “We cannot stay silent about it. We are actually risking our own lives by speaking out about the situation.
“There are things money cannot buy and fans seriously need to look deeper at the Saudi practices in the kingdom.”
Where does proposed takeover leave Bruce?
Bruce has previously said he would “love to be part” of the takeover, but his more immediate concerns will be related to the forthcoming season, which starts on 12 September.
He is set for a meeting on Wednesday with Ashley, where he can discuss if any funds are available for transfer targets. Bruce has said he hopes to get a few deals done, and will also hope that midfielder Matty Longstaff signs a new contract.
But most of all, he, like many fans, wants to know if the takeover will happen or not.
“It is a frustration,” he said after losing to Liverpool on Sunday. “The club needs that clarity, all of us, so let’s hope we can get that in the next few days or week or whatever it may be.
“If that’s not going to happen, we need to know quickly so it can be business as usual.”
As has been the case for almost four months, the answer lies with the Premier League.
Credit: BBC Sports