Middle East

Saudi crown prince asked Boris Johnson to intervene in Newcastle United bid

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with Lebanon's Christian Maronite patriarch on November 14, 2017, in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia's King Salman hosted the head of the Lebanese Maronite church Beshara Rai, a historic first at a time when Riyadh is stepping up the pressure on Iran-backed Hezbollah. / AFP PHOTO / Fayez Nureldine (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, warned Boris Johnson in a text message that UK-Saudi Arabian relations would be damaged if the British government failed to intervene to “correct” the Premier League’s “wrong” decision not to allow a £300m takeover of Newcastle United last year.

Johnson asked Edward Lister, his special envoy for the Gulf, to take up the issue, and Lord Lister reportedly told the prime minister: “I’m on the case. I will investigate.”

The message stemmed from an attempt by a consortium led by the sovereign wealth fund, the Saudi Public Investment Fund, to buy Newcastle from its current owner, Mike Ashley.

A deal was agreed in April last year, which was then scrutinised by the Premier League under its owners’ and directors’ test, because the league had doubts about the independence of the bid team from the Saudi government. In July the consortium, which described itself as an “autonomous and purely commercial investor”, withdrew from the deal, blaming an “unforeseeably prolonged process”.

The Daily Mail, which first reported on the lobbying attempt by Prince Mohammed, said the message to Johnson was sent on 27 June and read: “We expect the English Premier League to reconsider and correct its wrong conclusion.”

Lister told the Mail: “The Saudis were getting upset. We were not lobbying for them to buy it or not to buy it. We wanted [the Premier League] to be straightforward and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, don’t leave [the Saudis] dangling.”

Johnson and his ministers have shown sympathy for the bid but do not have the direct power to overrule the Premier League.

In August, Johnson, aware of how popular the bid had been with some football fans in north-east England, wrote to members of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust: “I appreciate many Newcastle fans were hoping this takeover bid would go ahead and can understand their sense of disappointment. I have seen the recent email sent to Newcastle fans from the Independent Football Ombudsman and agree with their conclusion that the Premier League should make a statement on this case.”

Saudi Arabia has long been jealous of its arch rival Qatar’s involvement in Paris Saint-Germain football club, and the involvement of a United Arab Emirates consortium in Manchester City.

In February this year the Biden administration released a declassified intelligence report which concluded that Prince Mohammed had approved the 2018 murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Human rights groups say the Saudi government has acted with impunity since 2018, including through arbitrary arrests of critics of the prince, as well as his potential political rivals.

“The bid to buy Newcastle was a blatant example of Saudi sportswashing, so it’s worrying that the prime minister would accede in any way to pressure from the crown prince over the deal,” said Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen.

Freedom of information requests show the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport bombarded the Premier League in June 2020 with updates on how the decision on the bid was going. The DCMS said the Foreign Office’s Saudi desk was involved in responding to the decision, showing the political sensitivity of the issue for the UK government.

The DCMS argues that the emails do not represent pressure, merely requests to keep the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, abreast of the decisions.

The tensions at the top of the government over the role of Prince Mohammed are revealed in the diaries of the former Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan, which were published this week.

On 10 October 2018, soon after the murder of Khashoggi, Duncan wrote: “The Saudi issue is massive. He was murdered and sliced up. It’s a gamechanger. I think we should take a lead at international level by saying we love the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but have growing doubts about MBS. Aim for the man and not the country. We should … but we cannot afford to … so we won’t.”

Elsewhere in his diaries, he accuses Prince Mohammed of “bombing Yemen to bits”. Duncan wrote that, acting on a tip-off, he had offered to provide Johnson with a list of disappeared Saudi princes.

Amnesty said: “At the time that the crown prince was putting this pressure on No 10, the world was still reeling from the fallout over Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi human rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul were languishing in jail, and Saudi warplanes were indiscriminately bombing Yemen.

“This whole tangled affair only underlines how there needs to be a proper overhaul of the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test to provide proper human rights scrutiny of who is trying to buy into the glamour and prestige of English football.”

A UK government spokesman said the sale had been a “commercial matter” and that the government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks.

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