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A Saudi Arabian Investment Fund Is Planning To Purchase Newcastle United


A wealthy group wants to buy your beleaguered local sports team. Cause for celebration, right? But when that consortium is led by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund and the team is Newcastle United of England's Premier Soccer League, it's a lot more complicated. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from Britain.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Controversial owners are nothing new in the world of sports, but Saudi Arabia is in a different class. Human rights organizations have criticized Saudi Arabia for various abuses, including the country's indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen. And then in 2018, there was this.


LAKSHMI SINGH: We're going to start the program with news about the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. According to several news outlets, the CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered to Khashoggi's killing.

LANGFITT: Khashoggi, who was dismembered, wrote columns for The Washington Post. Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, has denied any involvement.

FELIX JAKENS: The purchase of NewCastle is not about football or about business...

LANGFITT: Felix Jakens runs Priority Campaigns at Amnesty International in the U.K.

JAKENS: ...But about their reputation internationally and about covering up, effectively, the human rights violations which are taking place there.

LANGFITT: Jakens says the Saudi government has been using sports to try to improve its image. It's called sportswashing. Jakens says the Saudi government wants to use Newcastle to distract from its human rights record.

JAKENS: What they'd be hoping to see is a narrative about the benevolent backers of Newcastle United who have taken them to the top of the Premier League.

LANGFITT: The Premier League says it's conducting its own due process regarding the proposed sale as required by British law but says it can't comment further. As expected, many Newcastle fans back the acquisition. Steve Wraith once worked as the team's fan liaison officer.

STEVE WRAITH: One hundred percent this will turn around the club. There is no doubt about it. This will put Newcastle United back on the map for the right reasons.

LANGFITT: Wraith says Newcastle's current owner, billionaire retailer Mike Ashley, has neglected the club for years. Ashley says he's cleared over $90 million in club debt and the detractors portray him as a pantomime villain. Fans like Wraith hope the Saudis' deep pockets transform the club, which is ranked 13th in the league after play was suspended because of the coronavirus.

WRAITH: My only concern is that the takeover goes through, that we move on from this era which we've had to endure for the last 13 years and that we can move on to happier times as a football club. It does not concern me that 80% of the money is coming from Saudi.

LANGFITT: George McGuiness (ph) 26, is another hardcore Newcastle fan. He's torn over the acquisition. McGuiness hopes the Saudis resuscitate his team but remain in the background and don't try to use Newcastle as a PR platform.

GEORGE MCGUINESS: What could easily happen is they invest the money and the club does become the face of, you know, the Saudi regime and it just gets to a point where it is completely soulless version of a club that I once fell in love with.

LANGFITT: The Saudi-led consortium is reportedly offering $370 million to buy Newcastle. The sale is expected to go through.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.