Newcastle United have declined to comment on a report in the Wall Street Journal (£) that Mike Ashley is in talks with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund over a potential £340m takeover, but it is understood discussions are underway.
It is claimed a deal could be “days or weeks” away, with delicate negotiations ongoing between Newcastle’s owner and representatives of PIF, the Gulf nation’s Public Investment Fund – a body regarded as the key investment tool of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Amanda Staveley, the Dubai-based financier previously linked with a takeover of her own at St James’ Park, is said to be acting as a conduit between parties during talks dubbed ‘Project Zebra’. Apparently the intention is that her company, PCP Capital, assume a 10% stake in the club.
Quite apart from transforming Newcastle into a Premier League big hitter, the US report claims any deal could easily prove as transformative as the Abu Dhabi United Group (Adug) buyout of Manchester City would be about soft geopolitics and fulfil the Crown Prince’s ambition of altering his country’s image and influence around the globe. Saudi Arabia has recently explored investments in the European sporting arena, and has previously been linked with rumoured takeovers of Manchester United.
Newcastle responded with a “no comment” when contacted by the Guardian but it is worth noting that major deals are generally completed amid utmost secrecy and discretion, with Manchester City’s sale to Adug a prime example. Moreover, Ashley was understood to be unimpressed with Staveley’s previous attempt to buy Newcastle outright. Although she was involved as a go-between during City’s transition to Emirati ownership, it is unclear exactly why the Saudis would need her to execute this takeover or why they would want PCP to have an, albeit minor, say in the running of the club.
Ashley has been seeking to sell Newcastle for some years only to see a series of prospective buyers, most recently including a consortium led by the former Chelsea and Manchester United chief executive, Peter Kenyon, fail to raise the necessary funds. Speaking last summer, the retail tycoon said: “I have to assume I will stay running this football club. There are no offers. Define an offer. I’m not a believer any more. Peter Kenyon convinced me last Christmas that it was going to get done. I’m never doing that again. I think I could own this football club forever.”
Accordingly news of Saudi interest has been met by considerable scepticism on Tyneside, yet Newcastle has long seemed ripe for a buyout. Its large fanbase and St James’ Park’s city-centre location in the heart of one of the UK’s regional capitals dictated that Abu Dhabi looked long and hard at purchasing the club before turning their attentions to City.
Ashley detests information leaks and the Wall Street Journal report may jeopardise ‘Project Zebra’ and any agreement, but the suggested price is close to his £350m valuation.