When Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund took a majority interest in English soccer team Newcastle United in 2021, the Premier League set out a clear condition before approving the sale. Newcastle, the league said, couldn’t in any way be controlled by the government of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund assured the league that the team’s operations would be free of state influence, despite the fund’s chairman being Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Premier League was convinced. Within weeks, it said it had received "legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club."
But a court fight in California, revolving around Saudi Arabia’s creation of the new LIV Golf circuit, has renewed questions about whether true separation from the Saudi government was ever possible for a soccer team in the Northeast of England.
That’s because, in the LIV litigation, the Saudis are making a somewhat different case than the one they made to the Premier League. In a filing submitted this week, PIF argues that it is part of a foreign government. PIF and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, "are a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a sitting minister of the Saudi government," lawyers for the fund said in the filing.
In addition LIV’s court opponent, the PGA Tour, has argued that the Saudis exercise substantial control over the golf circuit. The Saudi investment fund has argued that while it is part of the Saudi government, the fund and LIV are separate entities—despite the fund owning nearly 100% of it.
The intertwined complexities of the Saudi’s investment in both LIV Golf and Newcastle show how challenging it has been for the wealthy Gulf state to realize its global sports ambitions.
In the U.S., LIV is suing the PGA Tour, arguing that the Tour violated antitrust law in trying to squash its new competitor. The Tour has fought back by suing LIV for interfering in its contracts by trying to poach players.
Things became more complicated when the PGA Tour wanted access to PIF documents about its involvement in LIV, and sought to add PIF and Al-Rumayyan as additional defendants.
Judges so far have agreed that the involvement of PIF in the golf circuit is strong enough that the PIF can be compelled to turn over documents, sit for depositions, and be sued. PGA Tour lawyers have said in court that PIF owns 93% of LIV Golf and is on the hook for 100% of its costs.
The Public Investment Fund also owns 80% of Newcastle, following a $380 million deal in 2021, and has helped the club dramatically turn around its fortunes over the past 18 months. At the time of the takeover, Newcastle was facing relegation to the second tier of English soccer. Now it sits in fifth place and is chasing a spot in the prestigious and lucrative Champions League.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters had told the BBC in 2021 that if evidence existed that the Kingdom was exerting control over the club, "we can remove the consortium as owners of the club."
The Premier League declined to comment Thursday on the PIF’s court filing in the U.S.
Newcastle directors and co-owners Mehrdad Ghodoussi and Amanda Staveley, who orchestrated the sale, also declined to comment on Thursday.
"I don’t look at LIV," Ghodoussi said. "I’m focused on Newcastle."
Whenever a stake in a top-tier English club is sold, the Premier League has the power to disqualify potential investors for any "offense involving any act which could reasonably be considered to be dishonest" or a "directly analogous offense in a foreign jurisdiction," according to the league’s handbook.
Rights groups had argued that language gave the league plenty of latitude to reject the takeover, based on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Yet in November 2021, the Premier League waved the deal through anyway.
When it came to golf, PIF faced no such roadblocks as it set up a new tour from scratch. But those efforts became the focus of court scrutiny when PIF tried to argue that it was separate from LIV Golf.
PGA Tour lawyers gave examples of Al-Rumayyan texting sports agents, contacting a broadcasting executive in pursuit of a broadcasting agreement, having a weekly meeting about LIV Golf and creating an action tracker for him to get updates on the circuit’s operations. Lawyers for PIF and Al-Rumayyan argued that his actions were that of a typical investor.
PIF and Al-Rumayyan have also argued that they cannot be subject to discovery, or sued, because as representatives of a foreign government they are entitled to sovereign immunity. That means they have emphasized, in a series of filings, the control the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has over PIF.
On Tuesday, PIF lawyers submitted expert testimony about its "governmental status" and "the PIF’s leadership structure, which comprises the highest-ranking public officials in the KSA’s Government." They even underlined key words to drive home the point.
"Every single member of the PIF Board is also among the highest-ranking public officials within the KSA’s Government. All nine members of the PIF’s Board were appointed to their positions by Royal Order, and all nine also hold the official rank of "Minister" within the KSA’s legal system," wrote Fahad Nasser Alarfaj, a Saudi lawyer asked to provide the declaration.
"Accordingly, the PIF’s leadership is composed entirely of the KSA’s highest-ranking public officials."
The declaration also described "the PIF’s responsibilities to implement the KSA’s reform policies," saying explicitly that it exists to further the goals of the Saudi government.
"The PIF also plays a central role in implementing the KSA’s Vision 2030 in accordance with its statutory mandate to serve the "public interest" and "the interest of future generations" by promoting the KSA’s "economic development" and "diversifying" the KSA’s sources of income."
A lawyer for PIF didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.