Boris Johnson intervened in a Saudi bid to buy a top English football club after he was personally lobbied by its crown prince.
Mohammed Bin Salman urged him to ‘correct and reconsider’ a ‘wrong’ decision by the Premier League, which was accused of blocking a £300million takeover of Newcastle United, it emerged last night.
The angry crown prince warned the Prime Minister last year that Anglo-Saudi relations would be damaged unless it was reversed.
Mr Johnson asked senior No10 aide Lord Eddie Lister, a Middle East expert, to take up the complaint. Lord Lister said he would ‘investigate’.
The Saudis withdrew from the Newcastle deal last July – blaming the Premier League – to the fury of fans convinced the wealthy Middle Eastern state’s investment could bring them new success.
Mr Johnson appeared to side with the fans – and in recent weeks there has been speculation that the deal could be revived.
Boris Johnson and Prince Mohammed bin Salman meet in Saudi Arabia in December 2016
An aerial daytime view of St James’ Park football stadium in Newcastle upon Tyne
The disclosures come after the Prime Minister ordered an inquiry into the way David Cameron lobbied the Government on behalf of collapsed firm Greensill Capital.
The Saudis are also involved in the Cameron lobbying row.
A photograph emerged this week showing Mr Cameron and financier Lex Greensill drinking tea around a camp fire in Saudi Arabia when they had talks with Bin Salman. Mr Cameron said they discussed human rights.
Chief Negotiator of Dubai International Capital Amanda Staveley looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League Semi Final, first leg match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on April 22, 2008 in Liverpool
A US Government report in February concluded Bin Salman – the country’s de-facto leader – authorised the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey in 2018.
He has previously denied ordering the killing or having any knowledge of it.
The latest Saudi twist in the lobbying row that has engulfed the Conservatives came as Bin Salman’s £44million superyacht, Pegasus VIII, was anchored off Falmouth in Cornwall.
Government officials repeatedly pressed the Premier League for details of whether a decision on allowing the takeover of Newcastle was ‘imminent’, emails released to the local news site Chronicle Live showed last night.
Staff in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport requested an update on June 21 ahead of a ‘senior cross-Whitehall’ meeting on Saudi Arabia the following day. But the Premier League responded there was ‘no set time in which a decision will be made’.
Bin Salman sent his message to Mr Johnson less than a week later. It came after the Premier League enraged him by demanding to know if the proposed takeover would mean the Saudi state – in effect Bin Salman himself – would own Newcastle FC. He said: ‘We expect the English Premier League to reconsider and correct its wrong conclusion.’ Mr Johnson said in a message to the No10 Private Office, ‘One for Sir Edward’ in a reference to Lord Lister, who had not been ennobled at the time.
Lord Lister told Mr Johnson: ‘I’m on the case. I will investigate.’ Despite Downing Street’s intervention, the Saudis and Premier League did not agree.
Newcastle United’s owner Mike Ashley in the stands, August 16, 2010
The super yacht Pegasus VIII, owned by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman anchored in the bay with King Henry VIII’s Pendennis Castle in the background, on April 14, 2021 in Falmouth
And why did PM then write to fans?
He is not known to be a fan of Newcastle United. But Boris Johnson’s comments on the failed takeover of the club last year turned a local sports story into national news.
Fans were devastated when the £300million offer from a Saudi-backed consortium fell through. The club railed at alleged lengthy delays and accused the Premier League of ‘acting inappropriately’ once its owner, Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley, had accepted a bid. Thousands of fans wrote to MPs to ask why the consortium pulled out. But in August, the Prime Minister himself intervened.
He said that ‘any sale is a matter for the interested parties, and for the Premier League to assess under its owners’ and directors’ test’. But he went on to back the conclusion of the Independent Football Ombudsman that the Premier League should make a statement outlining why the consortium withdrew its bid. The PM wrote: ‘I appreciate many Newcastle fans were hoping this takeover would go ahead and can understand their sense of disappointment… There must be clarity on why there was a significant delay.’ His intervention during a pandemic raised eyebrows.
But it seemingly paid off. The following month the Premier League, released a statement dismissing claims that it had rejected the Saudi-backed takeover.
Lord Lister said last night: ‘The Saudis were getting upset. We were not lobbying for them to buy it or not to buy it. We wanted them [the Premier League] to be straightforward and say yes or no, don’t leave them [the Saudis] dangling.’
In the end the Premier League effectively said no, Lord Lister said. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by him.
It led to protests by North East MPs and 90,000 Newcastle fans signed a petition calling for an investigation into the Premier League decision on the deal.
On August 7, Mr Johnson took the unusual step of writing an open letter to the fans in support of their campaign. Backing their demand for the Premier League to make a statement, he said: ‘There must be clarity on why there was a significant delay in a decision being made, and on the reasons why the [Saudi] consortium decided to withdraw their bid.
‘I appreciate many Newcastle fans were hoping this takeover would go ahead and can understand their sense of disappointment.’
Mr Johnson was careful to state that the decision on the takeover was ‘entirely a matter for parties concerned, with no involvement from the Government’. He added: ‘Ministers did not hold any discussions with sports national governing bodies or sports holders on the potential sale.’
However, his intervention was seen by some as piling pressure on the Premier League to ‘reconsider’ its stance – as Bin Salman had requested seven weeks earlier.
The deal to buy Newcastle United was agreed between Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley and a Saudi-led consortium including financier Amanda Staveley. It sparked protests over the country’s human rights record.
Businessman Lord Lister is one of Mr Johnson’s closest personal and political allies. The 72-year-old has acted as a ‘fixer’ for him as London mayor and in No10, and was recently rewarded for his loyalty with a peerage.
He was appointed Downing Street chief strategist when Mr Johnson won power and stepped in when Dominic Cummings was ousted as chief of staff last year. Lord Lister left No10 in February, when the PM appointed him as special envoy to the Gulf, which includes Saudi Arabia.
Pictured: St James Park in Newcastle upon Tyne
Edward Lister on the 9th floor of City Hall, pictured with Boris Johnson
The disclosures come after the Prime Minister ordered an inquiry into the way David Cameron lobbied the Government on behalf of collapsed firm Greensill Capital. Pictured: David Cameron, left, and Lex Greensill, founder of Greensill Capital, in Saudi Arabia in January 2020
Earlier this week Lord Lister dropped talks on a six-figure contract with a public relations and lobbying firm after claims it was in conflict with his role as a No10 envoy. He had discussed becoming an adviser for clients of Finsbury Glover Hering, which has two offices in the Middle East. As Gulf envoy, he has been praised by Mr Johnson for getting results. Lord Lister once said: ‘I just want to get the thing done.’
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has always denied he was pressured by the Government to approve the Newcastle takeover by the Saudis. Bin Salman, 35, is the son of King Salman, but is the country’s de facto leader, given his father has Alzheimer’s. On becoming deputy prime minister in 2017, he launched an anti-corruption campaign and allowed women to drive. But the horrific murder of Mr Khashoggi was a setback to his claim to be a reformer.
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.’
Tyne line… How it unfolded
January 25, 2020: Report in Wall Street Journal that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is in talks to buy Newcastle United.
April 15: A £300million deal is agreed between Mike Ashley and Saudi-led consortium, including financier Amanda Staveley and Reuben brothers.
April 16: Paperwork is lodged with Premier League. Prospective new owners must now pass League’s owners and directors test.
April 22: beIN Sports – Premier League TV rights holders in Middle East – urge Premier League to block takeover because of illegal transmission of English top-flight matches in Saudi.
June 16: Report from World Trade Organisation links Saudi state to broadcast piracy in country.
June 23: Saudi Arabia announces crackdown on broadcast piracy.
June 27: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman privately urges Boris Johnson to ‘reconsider and correct wrong conclusion’ by Premier League.
June 27: Boris Johnson privately asks No 10 chief strategist and Middle East expert Lord Lister to investigate.
July 27: Sources reveal Premier League approval process has ground to halt as League want more information on who will run club. Buyers insist Saudi state and PIF are separate entities and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will not be new owner of Newcastle, despite him being chairman of PIF.
July 30: Buyers announce they are withdrawing from process, citing economic factors and failure of League to reach decision on takeover.
August 7: Boris Johnson lends support to calls for Premier League to make statement on why takeover was not passed.
September 14: Ashley hires London law firm, Blackstone Chambers, in his dispute with Premier League over rejection of takeover.
November 19: Newcastle confirms it has issued arbitration proceedings against Premier League.
March 5: Newcastle loses High Court ruling to remove one of arbitration panel amid concerns of ‘bias’ towards Premier League. Date is awaited for private arbitration hearing.
April 12: Letter to staff at Newcastle club store mentions ‘anticipated transfer of ownership of club’ as they are given notice of redundancy with store set to change hands.