The government’s extensive efforts to facilitate a Saudi takeover of Newcastle United have been further exposed by documents which show the Premier League minister promised to get a response to a proposed “way forward” from “the highest levels of the Saudi government” .
Then Premier League chairman Gary Hoffman was asked by then Investments Minister Lord Gerry Grimstone in August 2020 to share the league’s legal advice on a “way forward” for the stalled takeover at the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the documents reveal. .
Grimstone, a former banker with high-level contacts in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, who was appointed by Johnson in March 2020 to attract investment to the UK, told Hoffman: “I can confirm then from the highest levels of the Government of Deliverable Arabia and then we will all know where this stands.”
The documents, released by the Department for International Trade in response to a freedom of information request by OpenDemocracy, show Grimstone working hard to try to help secure the takeover, liaising between the Premier League and the Saudi government on with a possible “solution”.
Evidence of Grimstone’s efforts, in the copying of internal memos by Downing Street officials and the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Neil Crompton, contradicts the UK government’s repeated insistence that he had nothing to do with the takeover process .
In April 2021 Johnson said in a parliamentary reply to the MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah: “The government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle.”
In May this year, in response to Grimstone’s high-level discussions revealed for the first time by the Guardian to stimulate the deal, a spokesman for DTI highlighted the Minister’s involvement, saying he had “never tried to influence Mr Hoffman and the Premier League to approve Newcastle’s takeover”. The spokesman said Grimstone was only fulfilling his role to “keep abreast of potential major investments coming into the UK”.
The documents released by the DTI consist of four memos Grimstone sent in August 2020 to Crompton and two unnamed Downing Street officials, informing them of his contact with Hoffman, including WhatsApp messages and by phone call.
The DTI heavily reviewed the memos before they were released, citing reasons that publication of the details could harm the UK’s international relations or interests, and that they are commercially sensitive. However, it is clear from the articles left unreviewed that Grimstone was looking for a way in which the takeover could be approved by the Central Department, and that the stalling process was considered sensitive and potentially embarrassing to the relationship. with Saudi Arabia.
In the first memo, sent on 11 August 2020, Grimstone told Crompton that he had just had a 45-minute call with Hoffman. “We found it clear at the beginning of the call that my only role is to facilitate the transfer of ideas between the EPL and the PIF and that it has not in any way prejudiced the full autonomy of the EPL in this matter,” a wrote Grimstone.
Hoffman told the minister that counsel for the Premier League indicated that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) had the power to control the PIF. That meant that the Saudi state itself had to clear the league’s “fit and proper persons” test for owners and directors. The next few sections seem to outline Hoffman’s explanation for why that might be a problem, but they’ve all been edited out.
It is understood that the Saudis rejected that legal advice about the state control of the PIF, and they refused to submit to the owners and directors test. It was also believed that the Saudi state would probably fail the test, and the takeover would be blocked as a result. It was not because of the state’s notorious abuse of human rights or the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who carried out the highly controversial Newcastle takeover, but because of the brutality of the Saudi state on Qatari-owned sports television rights.
Grimstone wrote in his memo: “We then discussed possible ways to solve this problem.”
The possible solutions, set out in five separate columns, have been arranged. The Guardian previously reported that Grimstone’s efforts to try to resolve the piracy issue appear to be included.
Reporting a subsequent call with Hoffman on August 22, Grimstone wrote: “Gary said the EPL would like to find a solution and is very sensitive to the wider considerations surrounding all of this in terms of relations with KSA. We agreed that no process should be restarted until a clear path is available as any new ‘failure’ would be very embarrassing.”
Grimstone wrote that Hoffman was to contact the Premier League’s counsel, “and ask him to advise whether there is a way forward [sic] and, if so, what commitments KSA would have to make. The parties would then have a clear view of how high the hurdle is and whether they are willing to jump it.”
Later that same day Grimstone sent a WhatsApp message to Hoffman: “I think we need to try and get this thing over with as quickly as possible for ourselves. As discussed it would be helpful for you and me to have an opinion from your QC as to what, in his view, would be needed to achieve this.
“I can then confirm from the highest levels of the Saudi Government whether this is deliverable and then we will all know where this stands.”
Grimstone offered to “engage in discussions” with Premier League counsel.
The Minister’s own assessment of the government’s intention, included at the end of the memo, was: “We hope that we are helping to bring some clarity to a very sensitive situation to allow the parties to bring this to the decision point.”
Despite Grimstone’s efforts, the agreement was not made in 2020, as the legal advice never changed, and KSA refused to submit to the owners and directors test. In October 2021, the Premier League announced that a way through had been found to approve the takeover, as the PIF had “provided legally binding assurances that Newcastle United will not be controlled by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.
Hoffman then told a meeting of the 20 clubs in the Premier League that the government had put pressure on the league to approve the takeover. Richard Masters, the chief executive of the league, told them it was not, however, and said in an interview with the BBC: “There were discussions with the government but no pressure was applied.” A Major League source indicated that Masters shares this view.
Grimstone responded to questions from the Guardian saying that he “vehemently” refused to conclude from the documents that he was working hard to facilitate the takeover, or that Johnson’s statement to parliament was false.
“Part of my role as Investment Minister is to be aware of potential major investments coming into the UK,” he said. “This was particularly important in investments such as Newcastle which were in the public domain and were attracting a lot of public interest. I made it clear to Mr Hoffman that my only role was to facilitate the exchange of ideas between the PIF and the EPL and that I did not in any way seek to undermine the complete independence of the EPL in this matter .
“Obviously, as I would in any high-profile investment coming into the UK, I was concerned that the parties resolved this between themselves in a courteous and professional manner regardless of the outcome of their discussions.”
Grimstone resigned as minister in July after Johnson resigned, saying he had brought in “a £50bn investment”. That figure included £10bn deals each with Abu Dhabi and Qatar’s sovereign wealth funds.
Johnson did not answer questions about his statement to parliament, but a DIT spokesman said the government stood by all his previous statements.
Hoffman, who told the clubs he was unaffected by government pressure, declined to comment.