When Newcastle United, one of the North East’s most famous football clubs, was sold for £300m in October, scenes of exultation erupted outside the walls of its famous old ground. With visible triumph and adulation, St James’ Park became engulfed by a fanbase freed from a protracted feud with its recently departed owner, Mike Ashley.
Ashley, who formally bought Newcastle in May 2007, saw his relationship with the fans quickly sour; match-goers were seen to be visibly disgruntled with the footballing direction of the team, eventually culminating with relegation in 2009. Such was the level of disconnect that in 2008, a year after his acquisition, he failed in his attempts to sell the club. What followed was a period of dissonance between his ownership and the wider fan community- a toxic marriage that came to an end earlier this month.
It is admittedly irregular to see coverage of a footballing development feature in a world affairs column, but the polemical nature of this takeover necessarily demands international and political scrutiny. This is because, in divorcing from its previous owner, Newcastle United are now predominantly owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). With an overall share of 80%, the valuation of the club has catapulted to become the wealthiest in the Premier League, a fact assured by the deep-pocketed PIF and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan.
As is the duality of English football, the exorbitant rise of Newcastle’s financial capabilities present an immediate challenge to the fortunes- both commercial and sporting- of competing teams. This is enough to prompt scepticism from an already splintering Premier League hierarchy; new ‘challengers’, such as Leicester, have already proven the mortality of the so-called ‘Top Six’ of England’s biggest clubs. The acquisition of Newcastle will only serve to further destabilise an already weakening monopoly at the top of English football.
This reality is one that should be central to any critique of the PIF-backed takeover. For, in order to adequately gauge criticism of the ownership deal, it is fundamental to contemplate the culture and commercialisation of the Premier League in recent decades. Whatever the virtues of competition, the rampant growth of its monetary worth– both as an export and as a cultural product- has far outpaced regulation and sporting equity. In turn, this has provoked a dilution of morals, with the purported values of football taking a backseat.
Yet, the recent takeover says as much about the Premier League as it does about the British state itself. In many respects, the manner through which the the PIF has bought majority shares of Newcastle United presents diplomatic and moral questions that underscore the relative strategic inertia of British business and politics. This is because, by investing in English football, the PIF has successfully evaded claims that it will not be directly influenced by the Saudi Arabian state. Indeed, Al-Rumayyan himself, now the new chairman of Newcastle United, yields immense political leverage in Saudi Arabia by virtue of his role as governor of the PIF. The fund is also closely associated to Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
This apparent paradox is not exclusively of moral concern, but of wider security and diplomatic interest. If it is to be held that a British commercial asset, in this case Newcastle United, is to be owned by a body closely associated with a regime accused by US intelligence of killing a journalist, it is easy to see how preoccupations over the integrity of British security are not entirely far-fetched.
What is striking, though, is that this could be seen to undermine the very nature of UK foreign policy: Dominic Raab, the former foreign secretary, placed sanctions on high-level Saudi officials over human rights violations. This follows accusations from the UK government that Saudi Arabian businessmen hold ‘clandestine‘ stakes linked to two major British newspapers. It certainty appears, then, that economic expedience increasingly outtrumps the demand for cohesive foreign relations and security considerations.
In many respects, the take over of Newcastle United reflects just that: the affability through which economic and commercial prospects- no matter how marginal- are increasingly pursued in spite of the wider, long-term interests of the United Kingdom.