Football, big money and sport washing: the issues surrounding the arrival of the Saudis in Newcastle

The circle of clubs controlled by Gulf States is growing. After Emirati investments in Manchester City (and worldwide, in the City football Group), and Qatari investments in Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Newcastle United FC switches to the Saudi flag.

On Thursday, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) chaired by Prince Mohammed Ben Salman (« MBS ») in person, and accompanied by a consortium of shareholders, disbursed 350 million euros to acquire 80 % of club shares. « We are extremely proud to become the new owners of Newcastle United, one of the most famous clubs in English football, » said the executive director of the fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who has become de facto the new one, in a statement. strongman of the North East England team.

The arrival of the Saudis is accompanied by economic, geopolitical and of course, sporting challenges. Some scenes of jubilation also took place Thursday evening around St James Park, the lair of the « Magpies » of Newcastle. This new era could restore training to its former prestige within the English first division, the very attractive Premier League. And why not, in the future, help it to forge a name in Europe. Two strong arguments for the supporters, far removed from the criticisms made by human rights associations, long opposed to this operation.

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  • Are Newcastle an ultra-rich future in the Premier League?

Unsurprisingly, the consortium led by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, including PCP Capital Partners and brothers David and Simon Reuben, has far greater resources than those of the former owner, British businessman Mike Ashley.

The PIF, which is already investing in new technologies or even video games, indicated at the beginning of the year that it wanted to double its assets by 2025, in order to reach 1070 billion dollars. This information therefore suggests that the Fund would currently have around 535 billion dollars, or 462 billion euros. A sum largely sufficient to invest in football. For comparison, the Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) has invested around 1.4 billion euros in the club in the capital in ten years. Enough to afford, over the years, stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, or even more recently, Lionel Messi.

In the game of comparisons – always delicate – the PIF would be almost twice as important as QSI, valued at around 250 billion dollars, and very far from the Abu Dhabi United Group of Sheik Mansour, which watches over the City Group, « only « endowed with 20 billion dollars. Again, a sufficient total to take its flagship club, Manchester, to the Champions League final last year. And to make it the most expensive squad in the world for this 2021-2022 season, according to the CIES Football Observatory.

Be careful, however, the funds available to the PIF do not suggest investments in the club. « We will have to wait for statements from shareholders about their specific objectives, » tempers sports economist Pierre Rondeau, at L’Express. A very rich club does not always have the ambition of its means. « François Pinault, yet billionaire, did not make Rennes, which he controls, a big European club, cites the specialist as an example. Paris FC either, which plays in the second division, does not benefit from the strength of strike that could give him the fund owner of Bahrain.  »

But a priori, the club should be cut to play the leading roles. « Newcastle are the best team in the world and we want to see them win top trophies in England and Europe. Getting these trophies means investment, patience, and time, » said Amanda Staveley, the negotiator. of the operation, Thursday.

  • Why did the Saudis choose this club?

Newcastle has many strengths. A list of achievements with his four league titles and his cups, acquired at the very beginning of the 20th century, and a certain international fame thanks to his exploits at the end of the 1990s. A glorious period marked by the performances of its top scorer and legend Alan Shearer. Which warmly welcomed, on Twitter, this change of hands.

Despite the current poor performance, penultimate in the championship after 7 days, Newcastle also has for him to belong to one of the most difficult championships in the world. And, undoubtedly, the most valued economically speaking. Its television rights, which benefit clubs, amount to 1.8 billion euros. A record in Europe, three times those of Ligue 1, the French professional championship. « It is finally one of the most powerful leagues, which has a real influence, and in particular on the election of the president of UEFA », judge Jean-Baptiste Guégan, specialist in the geopolitics of sport. An important detail, at a time when the debates focus on the organization of a World Cup every two years. A competition which arouses the interest of the Gulf countries – Qatar is hosting the next edition, in a year – and which the European institution is opposed, unlike FIFA.

Mike Ashley’s desire to separate from the club he had held since 2007 does not date from today. In 2019 persistent rumors indicated an interest of a billionaire from the Gulf, without the operation materializing. Since the club’s return to the Premier League four years ago, the results have been mediocre, with, at best, a tenth place acquired in 2018. The two relegations during his management darken his record at the head of Newcastle a little more. .

In a way, the club’s current struggles can be a boon to its new investors. « Newcastle do not play any European Cup. So they do not have to respect the rules of financial fair play (FPF) », recalls Pierre Rondeau. The Saudis should therefore have several windows to recruit new players, without being worried (for the moment) by UEFA, the regulatory body for European football. The approach also has a risk: that Newcastle will be relegated this season to the Championship, in a very competitive league (with 24 clubs), and from which it is difficult to extricate themselves to return to the highest level.

Thus, the specific choice of Newcastle in this championship remains above all « by default », judge Jean-Baptiste Guégan. « It’s a city that has no international visibility. No image. » Despite their substantial resources, the Saudis simply couldn’t get any better.

  • What is the purpose of the maneuver?

« Sport washing », sums up Jean-Baptiste Guégan. « The first objective is to make Saudi Arabia an attractive player, which exists on the planet. By relying on the examples of PSG, City, Rwanda (sponsor of Arsenal in particular), it is therefore to control its image and improve it.  » Why does it need to be improved? The list goes on: « the war in Yemen, the conservative policies of » MBS « , the assassination at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Kashoggi … ».

As such, English football, it is now clear, « is becoming a hunting party between billionaires from the Middle East, for speculative, geopolitical, economic purposes », adds Pierre Rondeau. But the Saudi investment differs despite everything from those operated by the Qataris, in Paris, or the Emiratis, in Manchester.

« The country has other problems compared to its Gulf neighbors: a population ten times greater than that of its neighbors. This implies problems of aging, pensions. But also of youth employment, dynamism, that wants to bring Mohammed Ben Salmane. The other side of the strategy is therefore to make it attractive in order to attract investors and tourists « , adds Jean-Baptiste Guégan. Newcastle will likely be a small pawn in this policy.

  • Why is this takeover raising criticism?

The British had already rejected the deal, in the midst of a health crisis. Officially for questions of piracy of English league matches in Saudi Arabia. Unofficially, the image of an English club bought by an authoritarian kingdom, led with an iron fist by Mohammed Ben Salman, hardly passed. These reasons still exist today.

« Under Mohammed bin Salman, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains dire – with criticism of the government, with women’s rights activists, Shiite activists and human defenders still harassed and imprisoned, often after evidently after trials inequitable « , particularly worried the NGO Amnesty International.

The Premier League has also tried to minimize the event this week, claiming to have « received legally binding guarantees that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control the club Newcastle United ».

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