Saudi-backed investors pull out of Newcastle deal

A Saudi-backed consortium on Thursday announced it had ended its bid to buy Newcastle United after months of waiting for approval from the Premier League.

The investment group, which included the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), PCP Capital Partners and billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben, had reportedly struck a £300 million ($391 million) deal to buy the club from unpopular owner Mike Ashley in April.

The PIF, chaired by Prince Mohammad bin Salman, had been set to take an 80 percent stake under the proposed deal, which was criticised by human rights groups.

"With a deep appreciation for the Newcastle community and the significance of its football club, we have come to the decision to withdraw our interest in acquiring Newcastle United Football Club," the group said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, the prolonged process under the current circumstances coupled with global uncertainty has rendered the potential investment no longer commercially viable."

Newcastle finished 13th in the recently completed Premier League season to secure another year of lucrative television rights.

However, there is deep uncertainty over the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, with no date set for fans to return to stadiums.

"During the unforeseeably prolonged process, the commercial agreement between the investment group and the club's owners expired and our investment thesis could not be sustained, particularly with no clarity as to the circumstances under which the next season will start and the new norms that will arise for matches, training and other activities," the statement added.

The takeover bid had been condemned by Amnesty International and Hatice Cengiz, the fiancee of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, over Saudi's human rights record, putting pressure on the Premier League not to give it the green light in its owners' and directors' test.

"This is a victory for human rights and decency and clear defeat for Mohamed Bin Salman and his efforts to sportswash his human rights record," said Cengiz in a statement.

"Let this defeat send a strong message to the leadership in Saudi Arabia that they will not be able to use their money to cover up their human rights record."

The piracy of sports broadcast rights, including the Premier League, in Saudi Arabia was also a stumbling block to the takeover.

- WTO ruling -

Last month a World Trade Organization panel ruled that Riyadh had failed to protect intellectual property rights of Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN by refusing to take action against a Saudi pirate TV outfit.

On Thursday, it was revealed Saudi had appealed against that ruling.

The collapse of the takeover will be a bitter blow to many Newcastle fans, who had dreamed that the riches of a Saudi-backed project could replicate Manchester City's success in winning four Premier League titles since Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour bought the club in 2008.

Retail tycoon Ashley is a deeply unpopular figure among the Newcastle support for his treatment of fans and an unwillingness to invest on the field to improve the Magpies' fortunes.

Newcastle have not won a major domestic trophy since 1955, but could still count on regular crowds of 50,000 before the coronavirus forced stadiums to close.

"It's been made pretty clear that football fans are the least important people in a decision that affects them the most," said the Newcastle United Supporters Trust.

The Premier League has not yet commented.

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