News that Saudi Arabia may have their eye on acquiring Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United feels as inevitable now as it would have felt insane 20 years ago. The “complicated” nature of the UK’s relationship with the kingdom is so powerful that you can’t expect it to be confined to the mere arms trade or the superprime London property market. Ultimately, the formbook suggests, Saudi Arabia will wish to acquire a huge reputation-laundering machine, with a somewhat smaller stadium-based athletic content facility attached. What we used to think of as “the football club”, if that isn’t going back too far to make sense in this day and age.
Happily, the Saudi regime are not the only ones whose priorities are somewhat out of whack. Only last week, I was marvelling at the point-missing evident in a newspaper headline announcing that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had “TAUNTED JEFF BEZOS WITH A SEXIST MEME”. Ooh, then now he’s REALLY gone too far. Yet within mere days, that headline’s football equivalent has presented itself, with a warning that “TV piracy row could hit Newcastle takeover bid”. Well, 134 crucifixions between January and September last year … but I guess we found it. TV piracy: the last taboo.
Yes, according to reports, Saudi Arabia’s alleged bid for Newcastle United could meet opposition from the Premier League over its involvement in alleged state-sponsored piracy. My mind’s eye immediately spools forward to the moment a week or so hence, where a regretful-looking Sky Sports reporter will stand outside St James’ Park and say: “Whilst the Premier League was OK with the beheadings and the dismemberment, Jim, this dodgy feed stuff has ultimately proved the deal breaker.”
The pirate outfit in question is BeoutQ, which has lifted content from the Qatar-based Bein Sports, as part of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing and multi-pronged economic conflict with its fellow Gulf state. The European Commission has been on the case of Saudi state involvement in this piracy, after rights holders including the Premier League and La Liga lodged a complaint about what they see as simple theft. This week the EC reported back, accusing Saudi Arabia of “causing considerable harm to EU businesses”. The latter is thought by some to be quite the blot on the Saudi copybook.
Before we go on, I should say that this is all perfectly likely to prove highly academic. Who knows what is really happening with Ashley’s latest piece of corporate performance art, which surfaced last weekend via the Wall Street Journal? But at this stage, a bid for Newcastle does at least feel more credible than the 2018 story suggesting Saudi Arabia was poised to buy Manchester United, which seemed to surface in the Daily Star via some Twitter rando. (And yet still contrived to put 5 % on the United share price.)
All we are told this time is that Ashley has let it be known he is furious at the leak at this delicate stage of negotations, and is “demanding answers”, which certainly sounds cheaper than demanding strikers, or left-backs. There is also a suggestion that Mike is in talks with two bidders besides the Saudis – suggesting he has been the highly unfortunate victim of a triple leak. Honestly, what are the chances?
Against this questionable backdrop, then, it is arguably the off-the-record comments from the Premier League which are more intriguing, with one anonymous source saying a Saudi takeover would present an “interesting challenge”. I enjoyed that euphemism, as though we were talking about an intermediate-level sudoku, or the problem of how to dispose of a journalist within an embassy using low-fi surgical instruments.
And yet – again returning to the form book – you’ve got to think that the sovereign wealth fund of one of the most brutally repressive regimes on earth, who resumed bombing the already starving Yemeni people last week, would easily ace the Premier League’s fabled fit and proper person test. As on so many occasions previously, it seems the only thing ever really tested by the notion of the fit and proper person test is the fit and proper person test – which [spoilers] constantly fails the test. It exists as a sort of sarcastic comment on itself, which is basically capable of disqualifying anyone bankrupted by one football club who fancies another crack, but which couldn’t lay a glove on the emissaries of highly problematic regimes or dodgy international moguls attracted by the sportswashing power of the Premier League.
Even when the test is actually failed, it has often proved no bar on the unfit or improper. Back in 2010, the Blackpool owner Owen Oyston failed it on account of a rape conviction, and was duly instructed to dispose of his majority shareholding in the club. He did no such thing, though the Premier League apparently vaguely thought he had complied. Oyston used the subsequent years to indulge in what a high court judge called “illegitimate stripping” of the club.
In 2017, the Saudi consortium will already know, the Premier League updated their owners and director’s test to take in the notion of “conduct outside the United Kingdom that would constitute an offence”. Well now. Where do you start? And, indeed, where do you end? Either way, testing times for the poor little test could lie ahead, and you certainly wouldn’t trust Ashley not to force English football to take in even more dirty washing.