Optimism is growing that a Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle could be pushed through within 24 hours after a long-standing row over TV piracy was resolved.
News of a potential breakthrough in a saga which has been ongoing since April last year arrived when it emerged Saudi Arabia had indicated it would lift its ban on broadcaster beIN SPORTS.
The Qatari network has been unable to broadcast in Saudi Arabia for the last four-and-a-half years as part of a diplomatic dispute, but the ban is set to come to an end, the PA news agency understands.
Amanda Staveley’s consortium, in which the nation’s Public Investment Fund is the 80 per cent majority shareholder, formally withdrew its £300million-plus bid to buy the club from Mike Ashley in July last year after waiting 17 weeks for the Premier League to make a decision under its owners’ and directors’ test.
The alleged piracy was one of the major stumbling blocks and the removal of that problem appears to have helped to resolve the other, the issue of the separation between the PIF and the Saudi state.
It is understood that discussions over the remaining obstacles have gathered pace and that significant progress has been made which could finally lead to a successful conclusion to an exhausting saga and an end to Ashley’s tenure at St James’ Park.
beIN is the legitimate Premier League rights holder in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and signed a new three-year deal last December understood to be on the same terms as the last agreement – around 500m US dollars (almost £368million).
As things stand, the club and the Premier League are set to enter arbitration over the takeover, with a separate competition law hearing confirming last week that the arbitration hearing would start on January 3, although those legal wrangles could soon be rendered obsolete.
The Competition Appeals Tribunal heard last week that the league had been “improperly influenced” by beIN and rival Premier League clubs in its consideration of the takeover.
Daniel Jowell QC, acting for St James Holdings Ltd, said the broadcaster and the clubs’ “active lobbying” of the league “distorted the Premier League’s fair and objective application of the rules”.
The deal has also been criticised on the grounds of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Amnesty International has previously warned the Premier League against becoming a “patsy” for Saudi attempts to sportswash its image.
Neither the Premier League nor Newcastle has commented on the latest developments, which came with unrest amongst Magpies fans mounting once again following a winless start to the new season which extends to seven Premier League games and eight in all competitions.
That has left head coach Steve Bruce firmly in the firing line with 94.3 per cent of more than 5,000 respondents to a survey conducted by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust calling for the 60-year-old to resign.
What a change of ownership might mean for Bruce – there is no appetite within the current Magpies’ hierarchy to remove him from his post – only time will tell.