Why we’re talking about . . .

Boris Johnson and the Saudi bid for Newcastle United

Crown Prince allegedly warned PM that Anglo-Saudi relations could be damaged

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman put pressure on Boris Johnson to intervene in an attempted takeover of Newcastle United, it has been reported.

According to an exclusive from the Daily Mail, Bin Salman warned the PM that Anglo-Saudi relations could be damaged if a decision by the Premier League to block the deal was not “corrected”.

Johnson reportedly asked a senior aide to investigate, but ultimately the Premier League did not approve the takeover.

What happened?

A year ago today Newcastle owner Mike Ashley agreed a £300m buyout for the club with a Saudi-led consortium. However, as the Premier League assessed the move under its Owners' and Directors’ Test, concerns were raised about the kingdom’s human rights record and a pirate TV channel broadcasting sport to its citizens.

The Premier League wanted to know if Bin Salman himself would effectively be the owner of the Tyneside club, but the buying consortium said its Public Investment Fund was separate from the state.

What’s Boris Johnson got to do with it?

The Mail says that at the end of June 2020, with the deal still unapproved by the Premier League, Bin Salman messaged the PM, saying: “We expect the English Premier League to reconsider and correct its wrong conclusion.” 

Johnson asked his senior aide Lord Eddie Lister to investigate, and later backed calls for the Premier League to explain why it had not supported the deal. In August, he wrote to fans at the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, saying he agreed with them that the “Premier League should make a statement on this case”.

The Saudis finally withdrew from the agreement, blaming the Premier League for its collapse.

Lister told the Mail: “The Saudis were getting upset. We were not lobbying for them to buy it or not to buy it. We wanted [the Premier League] to be straightforward and say yes or no, don’t leave [the Saudis] dangling.”

Why does it matter? 

Although the prime minister is not accused of any wrongdoing, it comes amid a spiralling lobbying row in Whitehall. Johnson has ordered an inquiry into how his predecessor David Cameron lobbied ministers on behalf of financial services firm Greensill Capital. As the Mail’s front page splashed with “PM lobbied by Saudi Prince”, Bloomberg notes that “the spotlight moved closer to Johnson himself”.

A government spokesman said: “While we welcome overseas investment, this was a commercial matter for the parties concerned and the Government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on Newcastle United.”

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