A Saudi-led consortium’s bid to purchase Newcastle United failed after months of controversy surrounding the planned takeover.
The biggest sticking point was the Premier League viewing the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the group behind the bid, as a proxy for the Saudi state. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
But the group cited “this difficult phase marked by the many real challenges facing us all from Covid-19,” as a chief reason for the deal falling apart.
The deal falling through was a surprise to many as the deal was in its final stages. Newcastle’s current owner Mike Ashley, CEO of Sports Direct, will keep the £17 million deposit put down by the Saudi-group. The final deal would have seen the club sold for £300 million.
The collapse of the deal is a major setback for Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund, as the purchase of a Premier League club could have been a huge public relations coup. Saudi Arabia has struggled in the public eye of the West after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Some recent investments from the fund have also decreased massively in valuation. In May, Softbank announced its Vision Fund, in which the Saudi sovereign fund invested $45 billion, lost $17 billion in the last fiscal year after it wrote down the value of WeWork and Uber.
Despite the setbacks, the Saudi Public Investment Fund announced it was still keen to continue the takeover if the Premier League gave the deal the green light. Newcastle United fans have also petitioned the Premier League to provide more details as to why the takeover deal was abandoned after four months of negotiations.
While the deal might not be completely dead, the prolonged process and massive money put up shows the PIF and the Saudi state are still keen on further diversifying their economy and wealth. However, that process may come at a higher price due to strained diplomatic relations and poor public relations.
The Saudi state and the PIF have long been pushing for more diversification in order to lessen the country’s dependency on oil. The push has been spearheaded by Crown Prince bin Salman, who has deployed a charm offensive on Western companies and politicians.
But in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, the business relations between foreign companies and the Saudi state have become more difficult.
Shortly after the incident in 2018, an array of businesses, media companies, politicians, and international organizations pulled out of business deals or refused to attend business forums in Riyadh.
The private ventures most supportive of the Saudi state also found themselves in hot water in the wake of the scandal. Uber, who received a $3.5 billion cash injection from the PIF in 2016, stepped into the scandal when its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi dismissed the murder as a “mistake”.
Not only has the push for economic diversification come with diplomatic headaches, but some of its most high-profile investments have resulted in massive losses that predate the coronavirus economic crisis. As of late 2019, the PIF had lost $1 billion due to its investment in Uber.
Spending Big in the Crisis
But big losses and the current economic crisis have not scared off the sovereign wealth fund. The PIF has been pouring money into many ventures as the worldwide economic impact was beginning to hit, attempting to snap up shares in deflating industries.
According to the Financial Times, Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, said at a virtual investment conference in April, “you don’t want to waste a crisis . . . So, for us, definitely we are looking into any opportunities.”
The PIF invested in a wide range of industries including the hardest hit, acquiring a 5.7% in Live Nation, an American events promoter, and a 7.3% stake in Carnival, the American cruise line.
The Saudis have also been snapping up shares in blue-chip companies with household names like Disney, Facebook, BP, Boeing, and Citigroup.
But critics abroad and domestically are beginning to criticize the tactic of splashing cash in foreign companies as it simultaneously funds proxy wars and potentially ignores economic damage at home.
The Footprint of Saudi Wealth Domestically and Abroad
The PIF’s expanding international investments and its interest in purchasing an 80% stake in a top-flight English football club have drawn attention to the Saudi’s aggressive strategy during uncertain times.
The coronavirus crisis has been a devastating period for the Middle East, at first for economic reasons, and now due to a rise in infections for public health reasons. The world economy was brought to a standstill for several months, and it is still far from reaching its pre-pandemic levels.
Oil prices have picked up in recent days and weeks, but they are still far off of pre-pandemic levels.
And while oil prices were slowly recovering, the rate of coronavirus infections took off in Saudi Arabia. The number of cases is currently stabilizing at over 1,000 a day after peaks of over 4,000 daily confirmed coronavirus cases.
$1 billion was pumped into Saudi businesses to keep them afloat during the crisis, but the near-term, as in many countries, still looks grim.
The economic developments may put a damper on some of Saudi Arabia and MBS’s more ambitious goals, including Neom, a $500 billion futuristic city planned to be built in the country’s barren northwest.
Saudi Arabia’s international engagements may also serve as a thorn in their side. While the Khashoggi murder has proven to be a much worse diplomatic hit, the Kingdom’s involvement in worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen through war still draws harsh criticism from many corners.
With an aggressive and risky strategy during an unprecedented economic standstill globally, the PIF and Saudi Arabia may pay for its bet against the house. But with growing economic sway in many Western institutions, MBS and Saudi Arabia could be playing a long game that will see them sheltered from their gravest sins.