The Saudi’s shot themselves in the foot

Published: Tuesday, 21 July 2020

It was Harold Wilson who famously uttered the words ‘A week is a long time in politics’. Historians continue to argue whether Harold Macmillan ever actually used the phrase ‘Events, dear boy, events’ when asked what was most likely to knock governments off course, but for now we’ll take it that he did.

Both apply to the ongoing saga of the Saudi government’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United. And yes – however you look at it, however they try to disguise themselves….it is the Saudi State – their sovereign wealth fund, entirely owned and controlled by the Saudi Arabian State and which executes Saudi state policy – who submitted a bid to buy Newcastle; not anyone else. Another hint is perhaps in the word “sovereign” – have a look at that word in the dictionary. I’m reminded of another Saudi word – “be-out-Q”, although maybe that’s Cuban (let me ask FIFA, UEFA and the Premier League what they think about that). 

A week ago when I sat down to write my blog I was convinced that the deal would somehow – by hook or by crook – get done. After 15 weeks, perhaps I’d started to believe the briefings and the bots. The relentless “no red flags”, the supreme confidence, the alternative facts. But a week is a long time in politics (sorry Harold) – everything has changed. That’s not to say that Mike Ashley won’t finally sell, but I would now be surprised if it is to Saudi Arabia.

So what changed? Simple. The Saudi’s:- who’ve spent 3 years stealing from Sky, BBC, beIN, every broadcaster in world sport; who’ve blocked legal cases 9 times; who’ve said the Premier League sent their complaints to the wrong Saudi email address; who said they won the WTO case (only for the WTO to say ‘read the judgment’)… Well, they really shot themselves in the foot last Tuesday – just as we’d all got sucked into their alternative reality. They permanently banned the Premier League’s broadcast partner from broadcasting in Saudi Arabia.

Why does this matter? Why was it so significant? Because beIN is the partner of the Premier League across the Middle East and North Africa and often in other territories around the world too. While some Newcastle fans may wilfully choose to ignore this – beIN is one of the biggest investors in Newcastle football club; we celebrate and promote their product, their players, their culture and history all around the world and have done for years. We also help pay their bills - enormously. So let’s follow the Saudi’s latest move to its natural conclusion – they’re looking to join the best league in the world, but ban anyone from watching that league, and the very club they’re trying to own. And it’s not just PL football affected by this decision – it’s all of UK sport, from the Six Nations to the Ashes, the EFL to the Scottish league, Wimbledon to our great male and female athletes at the OIympics next year. All these sports bodies want to see their product grow, all of them protect their broadcaster partners and their IP above all else. Remove the broadcaster in Saudi – all you’re left with is piracy. At a time when Saudi is trying to pass – essentially – a piracy test. That’s some middle finger to the PL.

Not surprisingly the holders of all these rights sat up – their business models are based on TV money, almost exclusively and especially in this COVID lockdown world. Not even the British govt. could turn a blind eye now – sport is one of their greatest exports.

I understand Geordie desperation to see their club sold. Don’t panic guys. Trust me - Mike Ashley is as keen to sell as you are to see him gone. All is not lost in that respect.

I’ve been privileged to have had a front row seat during this saga. When I first spoke about it in what we called ‘The Gray Lounge’ - Andy’s front room during lockdown - I had no idea about the enormity of the reaction it would stir. I’ve been pilloried by Geordies. I’ve had death threats - only from one side in the argument – but I won’t be silenced. That’s what the Saudi’s do, we know that. As a journalist it’s my job to ask awkward questions and to expose wrongdoing. The Saudi deal was never going to fail on moral grounds – which is a scandal in of itself. But legally the deal was wrong – if you steal the product you’re trying to buy, what do you think the security guard will say at the automatic doors?

One quick aside that’s puzzled me for 15 weeks – anyone, and I mean anyone, who flags legitimate concerns about the deal is lynched. MPs, broadcasters, other buyers, the Premier League, other clubs, Hatice Cengiz, Amnesty, anyone. Rather than lynch us all, I wonder why the cheerleaders don’t focus – just for a second – on the buyers. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve got some questions to answer – and I’m not talking about the weather in Cuba.

I repeat what I’ve always said. Newcastle is a fantastic football club. I told you Brucey would do a job for you – even if your ambitions are sky high (which they should be), he’s done an honest job in challenging times. You didn’t want to hear that because Rafa had somehow managed to convince everybody he was the only man that could manage the club.

I wish the club and its many fair minded supporters nothing but success. I’d love to see Brucey given the tools to deliver that success – by owners that see Newcastle as a family football club, not PR. He knows what silverware would mean. It’s his priority - not finishing high enough in the league to trigger personal bonuses as his predecessor did.  Cue a mountain of abuse.

When the dust settles on this saga, you may see that this current bid never added up – from the beginning. And if someone else takes the reigns - and I told you right at outset that Henry Mauriss wanted it - although I couldn’t name him - it’ll be better for the club.

I conclude where I started. ‘A week is a long time in politics’, so who knows? I said some time ago ‘don’t be surprised if there a surprise somewhere along the line before this gets done’ - but as of now you’re up to date with as much information as I can share.