Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

Revealed: How Tory minister aided Saudi takeover of Newcastle United

Gerry Grimstone vowed to take Premier League plan to top of Saudi government, documents seen by openDemocracy show

Lucas Amin David Conn
26 September 2022, 11.13am

Saudi Arabia's takeover of Newcastle United was criticised due to the country's record for human rights abuses.

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MI News & Sport / Alamy Stock Photo

The government’s attempts to assist Saudi Arabia’s controversial takeover of the British Premier League football team Newcastle United included a personal intervention by a Tory minister, documents obtained exclusively by openDemocracy have revealed.

It appears to contradict Boris Johnson’s claim in Parliament last year that the government had no involvement with the sale, which was heavily criticised due to Saudi Arabia’s record for human rights abuses.

Correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that Lord Gerry Grimstone promised the Premier League he would secure a response from “the highest levels of the Saudi government” to the takeover plan.

Grimstone, then the UK’s investment minister, had asked the then Premier League chair Gary Hoffman in August 2020 to share the league’s legal advice on “a way forward” for the stalled takeover of the club by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), the documents reveal.

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Grimstone, a former banker with high-level contacts in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, told Hoffman: “I can then confirm from the highest levels of the Saudi [g]overnment whether this is deliverable and we all will then know where this stands.”

The documents show Grimstone liaising between the Premier League and UK government about a potential “solution” to the takeover, and promising to approach the Saudi government.

The evidence of Grimstone’s efforts, in internal memos copying in Downing Street officials and the British ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Neil Crompton, further contradicts the UK government’s repeated insistence that it had no involvement in the takeover process.

In April 2021, Boris Johnson stated in a parliamentary answer to the Newcastle Central MP, Chi Onwurah: “The government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle.” Johnson had appointed Grimstone in March 2020.

I can then confirm from the highest levels of the Saudi Government whether this is deliverable.

Lord Grimstone

Grimstone’s discussions to encourage the deal were first revealed in May this year. A DIT spokesperson at the time downplayed the minister’s involvement, saying he “never tried to influence Mr Hoffman and the Premier League to approve the Newcastle takeover”. The spokesperson said Grimstone was only fulfilling his role to “keep abreast of large investments potentially coming into the UK”.

The documents released by the DIT to openDemocracy consist of four memos Grimstone sent in August 2020 to Crompton and two unnamed officials in Downing Street, informing them of his contact with Hoffman, including WhatsApp messages and three phone calls.

The DIT heavily redacted the memos before releasing them, claiming they could damage the UK’s international relations or interests, and were commercially sensitive.

But it is clear from the sections left unredacted that Grimstone was looking for a way for the takeover to be approved by the Premier League, and that the stalled process was seen as sensitive and potentially “embarrassing” for relations with Saudi Arabia.

In the first memo, sent on 11 August 2020, Grimstone told Crompton he had just had a 45-minute call with Hoffman. “We established clearly at the beginning of the call that my only role was to facilitate the passing of ideas between the EPL [English Premier League] and [Saudi] PIF and that in no way prejudiced the EPL’s complete autonomy in this matter,” Grimstone wrote.

Hoffman told the minister that the Premier League’s barrister had advised that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) had the power to control the PIF. That meant the Saudi state itself had to be cleared by the league’s “fit and proper persons” test for owners and directors. The next sections apparently set out Hoffman’s explanation as to why that may have been a problem, but are all redacted.

It is understood that the Saudis rejected that legal advice about state control of the PIF, and refused to submit to the owners and directors test. It was also believed that the Saudi state was likely to fail the test, resulting in the takeover being blocked.

However, that was not because of the state’s notorious human rights abuses or the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which have made the takeover of Newcastle hugely controversial, but because of Saudi state pirating of Qatari-owned sports TV rights.

Grimstone wrote in his memo: “We then discussed possible ways to solve this conundrum.”

The possible solutions, set out in five separate columns, are redacted.

Reporting a subsequent call with Hoffman on 22 August, Grimstone wrote: “Gary said the EPL would like to find a solution and he is very sensitive to the wider considerations surrounding all this in respect of relationships with KSA. We agreed that any process should not restart until a clear way through is on the table as any new ‘failure’ would be highly embarrassing.”

Grimstone wrote that Hoffman was going to contact the Premier League’s barrister, “and ask him to advise on is there a way forward [sic] and, if so, what undertakings would KSA have to give. The parties would then have a clear view on how high the hurdle is and whether they are prepared to jump it.”

Later the same day Grimstone sent a WhatsApp message to Hoffman: “I think for all our sakes we need to try and bring this matter to a conclusion as quickly as possible. As discussed it would be helpful for you and I to have a view from your QC [barrister] as to what in his opinion it would take to achieve this.

“I can then confirm from the highest levels of the Saudi Government whether this is deliverable and we all will then know where this stands.”

Grimstone also offered to “join in a discussion” with the Premier League’s barrister.

The minister’s own assessment of the government’s intention, included at the end of the memo, was: “Hopefully, we are helping to inject some clarity into a very muddled situation to allow the parties to bring this to the point of decision.”

Despite Grimstone’s efforts, the deal did not go through in 2020, as the legal advice never changed, and KSA refused to submit to the owners and directors test. In October 2021, however, the Premier League announced that a way through to approving the takeover had been found, as the PIF had provided “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United”.

Hoffman then told a meeting of the 20 Premier League clubs that the government had put pressure on the league to approve the takeover. Richard Masters, the league’s chief executive, told them it had not, however, and said in a BBC interview: “There were conversations with government but there was no pressure applied.” A Premier League source indicated that Masters maintains this view.

My only role was to facilitate the passing of ideas between the PIF and EPL

Lord Grimstone

Grimstone today said he “strongly” rejected the conclusion that the documents show he had been working hard to facilitate the takeover, or that Johnson’s statement to parliament was untrue.

“Part of my role as investment minister was to keep abreast of large investments potentially coming into the UK,” he said. “This was particularly important in investments such as Newcastle which were in the public domain and which were attracting a great deal of public interest. I made it very clear to Mr Hoffman that my only role was to facilitate the passing of ideas between the PIF and EPL and that in no way did I seek to prejudice the EPL’s complete autonomy in this matter.

“Naturally, as I would with any high-profile investment coming into the UK, I was concerned that the parties resolved this between themselves courteously and professionally whatever the outcome of their discussions.”

Grimstone stepped down as a minister in July after Johnson’s resignation, saying he had brought in “getting on for £50bn in investment”. That figure included £10bn deals each with sovereign wealth funds of Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

Johnson did not respond to questions about his statement to parliament, but a DIT spokesperson said the government stood by all its previous statements.

Hoffman, who told the clubs that he was not influenced by the government pressure, declined to comment.

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