The Athletic Mini: Key moments before Newcastle’s takeover told in new government emails

Today The Athletic publishes its second tranche of government emails concerning the takeover of Newcastle United in October 2021 by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The first set of emails, published in April of this year, concerned communications between May 1 and July 30 in 2020. They revealed the scale of the British government’s interest in the deal and that it considered the possible failure of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United to be an “immediate risk” to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the Gulf nation.

For this report, we requested communications between August 1 and October 31 in 2021, which represents the months leading up to and shortly after the announcement of the takeover on October 7.

The 27 pages of newly obtained emails, released by the UK Foreign Office following a freedom of information request by The Athletic, shed fresh light on discussions between government departments and the Premier League

According to the latest emails disclosed to The Athletic, The Premier League “agreed to settle their differences” with PIF so that the takeover of Newcastle United could “go ahead” in a conversation with a senior official from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office.

A UK government spokesperson previously told The Athletic that it “has not had a role at any point in the takeover of Newcastle United.” Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has previously said there was “no pressure applied” by the UK government during the process that ended with the Saudi PIF acquiring 80 per cent of Newcastle United in October 2021.

You can read the full investigation, and see images of a selection of the emails, by clicking this link. But for those of you short on time, among the key disclosures are:

  • Nine days before the takeover, Neil Crompton, UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described being told by Chad Woodward, then the director of trade and investment for the UK government in Saudi Arabia, the Premier League had, in a conversation with another foreign office official, “agreed to settle differences with the PIF so that their investment in Newcastle can go ahead”
  • Two meetings were held by foreign office officials with the Premier League over Microsoft Teams in the fortnight before the takeover was announced
  • On October 6, the day before the takeover’s announcement, an email to Woodward states that a Premier League official sent a message on WhatsApp to a foreign office employee, which is repeated verbatim in the email but almost entirely redacted
  • The day before the takeover, the Foreign Office distributed its prepared “top lines”, presumably for expected media scrutiny on the matter. Stock answers included: “How has the Government allowed a country responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to take control of one of the North East’s most important cultural assets?”
  • A foreign office note also said that while some critics of the takeover might discuss “sportswashing”, the takeover in fact represented a chance to show off Saudi’s progress in promoting female participation in sport.
  • The emails suggest that the Premier League’s insistence on separation of control led to Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of PIF and whose own lawyers described him as a “sitting minister” of the Saudi government, becoming a non-executive chairman and they’d appoint “someone” (presumed to be Staveley) to run the club

The Premier League declined to formally comment for this story but senior sources, who were not authorised to speak publicly on the matter, maintained to The Athletic on Monday evening that the decision to allow the takeover to proceed in October 2021 was made by the Premier League Board based on the legally binding assurances received by the Premier League and not as a result of any external influence.

They also said that their interactions with the UK state apparatus showed the government “being predisposed” to being helpful but insisted it did not sway the decision, while adding they had no recollection of discussing a PR offer.

The UK foreign office was approached for comment but did not respond at the point of publication.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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