The omerta on the Saudi Arabian state takeover of Newcastle is not only frustrating for the club’s fans, who are used to existing in a hope-free information void, but insults those who want the issues around the deal honestly discussed.
The Premier League’s fallback defence of “confidentiality” asks that we all pipe down over Saudi Arabia’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which the country’s ruler and figurehead for the Newcastle deal, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been implicated.
It holds that nothing can be said about the Premier League’s nine blocked attempts to challenge Saudi piracy in Saudi courts – or indeed about World Trade Organisation and US government reports pointing the finger at the Riyadh government for not preventing the theft of broadcast content.
For the Premier League to say it “cannot comment” for reasons of “confidentiality” may sound fine from their end of the street, but the tip-toeing stopped spectacularly when the SNP MP John Nicholson tore into Richard Masters, the league’s chief executive, in Westminster. Referring to “the grizzly Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” Nicholson spoke of Khashoggi being “lured into a Saudi embassy and then murdered and chopped up into little pieces.”
Masters, who pretty much spent 100 days in meetings overseeing the return of 92 matches in bio-secure grounds, looked profoundly wearied by Nicholson’s persistence. In fact, he looked weary, full-stop, like most people with big, important jobs, three months into Covid-19.
Yet the pressure is correct in detail and purpose. This cannot be a cosy closed-door deal. Nicholson was not mucking around. He said: “You could find Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman passing the fit and proper test and taking over a club. That would be humiliating for you – surely.”
Masters protested: “Again, you’re asking me to talk about something I simply can’t.” He also denied that the government has leaned on the Premier League to oil the deal through, in line with its own pro-Saudi foreign and trade policies.
He can repeat as often as he likes the claim that the league is bound to silence. But it was vocal enough when leading the worldwide legal fight against Saudi piracy. Then, it wanted tea and sympathy. The very least it could do is reveal the nature of the delay, what the obstacles are and what time scale is. This silence and hiding behind “confidentiality” on what should be an open issue – the ownership test – hardly inspires confidence in Newcastle’s future.