In a world where uncertainty and economic anxiety reigns supreme, on a planet decimated by natural disasters and disease, in a place where countries scramble for the provisions their populations and industries so desperately need, the Saudi royal family took action. Knowing that while in the eye of a storm the wisest thing to do was break bread with Sports Direct owner and pie-eater extraordinaire Mike Ashley, they sat down to discuss the takeover of a football club.
Fronted by Amanda Staveley, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s PIF fund seemed undeterred by the price of oil dropping through the floor or the financial fair play rules that Manchester City fell foul of, ploughing ahead with their deal regardless.
So why is the prince laying claim to St. James’ Park and what will the future hold for both owner and club? We take a look at some of the possibilities and ask what the end game is for Middle East-based billionaires acquiring controlling stakes in some of Europe’s biggest football clubs.
How is the Deal Being Brokered?
Amanda Staveley may appear reminiscent of a character from Desperate Housewives, but appearances can be deceiving. She is, in fact, the main power broker between the Middle East’s billionaire class and Premier League clubs in need of a cash injection.
She was at the forefront of the deal that took the UAE’s Sheikh Mansour into the hot seat at Man City, having cut her teeth with a similar deal struck between Barclays Bank and the Qatari government. With a keen interest in horse racing, Staveley appears to have nurtured a fruitful relationship with Arab royal families who also love their racing.
Why Are the Saudis Buying Now?
Even before the most recent world events, oil was on the slide, with American shale gas and environmental concerns eating into what had previously been endless wells of profit. Such has been the crisis in the oil industry that at times in 2020 shipments have become worthless, as the shipping of the black sludge costs more than it fetches at the market.
Buying football clubs and generally investing in their share of Western economies as a whole seems to be the way the Middle East’s billionaires are mitigating long term risk, planning ahead for a time when all they’ll be left with is a few sand dunes. There are also the added benefits of positive PR, as football fans go gooey-eyed at the odds of their team making big summer signings plummeting, no matter the true cost paid elsewhere.
What Obstacles Will the New Owners Face?
Of course, even when you are worth upwards of $200 billion there are pitfalls to investing in a football club, especially when the spectres of FIFA and UEFA are cooking up evil plans in their Swiss strongholds.
Manchester City found this out at their own cost in late 2019, being slapped with a 2-year ban from European competition. The message from UEFA was loud and clear: if Arab billionaires want to buy control of European football, they’ll have to stump up to the tune of a mid-sized country’s GDP. It remains to be seen how this standoff fronted on one side by the likes of PSG and Man City will play out, but the current football establishment won’t just stand aside and watch Arab princes buy league and cup titles unless they are properly compensated themselves in the process. After all, if a World Cup can be taken to Qatar what else is possible?
Are Deals Like This Good for Fans and the Game in General?
It’s easy to denigrate deals such as this, with doubts over how committed such buyers are to developing the game at the grassroots level as well as the moral concerns involved, but ultimately no one has a billion dollars sitting in their account without having shown a ruthless streak now and again.
It is up to football’s governing bodies to keep these new billionaire owners under control and to channel their wealth so that it benefits players and clubs right across Europe, rather than just an elite few. It remains to be seen if the suits at UEFA HQ have the backbone for the job at hand.