Newcastle is changing.
It is happening on the pitch — from rock bottom to the Champions League, matches at the San Siro and Parc des Princes, meting out 4-1 thrashings to European heavyweights.
It is happening at St James’ Park — exploratory conversations to expand the stadium, Strawberry Place back in club hands with planning permission granted for a fan zone, optimism paved into the walk up the Gallowgate.
And change is happening in the city too. Not just in hearts and minds, but in steel, cement and stonework. Buildings are sprouting along Pilgrim Street, £1.5billion ($1.8bn) of investments has been promised by the city council. While, across the Tyne, the regeneration of the Gateshead quays continues apace.
On Saturday, it will be two years since a takeover led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased 80 per cent of Newcastle United, with the remaining stakes split between Amanda Staveley and the Reuben family.
“It’s not sportswashing, it’s investment,” said Staveley upon the deal’s completion, addressing criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. In Newcastle, the new ownership arrived at a city in desperate need of just that.
Just as Mike Ashley levied austerity onto the club, successive governments have done the same to the city, with disastrous results. Since 2010, the council have been forced to make £335million worth of cuts. The North East has the lowest life expectancy of any UK region. Both child poverty and unemployment are 50 per cent higher than the national average.
In the aftermath of de-industrialisation, with the city’s traditional industries of coal, shipbuilding and steel washed away by the years, sections of the city have been left to decay. Until recent months, the only significant building work has been student housing.
Further south west, Manchester stands as a precedent. In 2008, Manchester City was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), a private equity company with strong links to the UAE government. ADUG insists the two are separate.
Their ownership structure was one reason why the Premier League approved Newcastle’s own takeover by PIF — but the parallels run deeper. Over the following years, ADUG invested heavily in impoverished parts of east Manchester, proclaiming an intention to build affordable houses and rid the city of its abandoned brownfield sites.
Good has undoubtedly come from these projects. The area around the Etihad Stadium, once a post-industrial wasteland, is now one of the city’s economic centres. But praise for these developments has not been without its dissenting voices.
Multiple newspaper reports and academic studies have investigated whether the city was exploited by the scheme — with the council receiving no rental income from what was launched as a joint venture with Abu Dhabi. One investigation, published by the Sunday Times in 2019, was headlined “Manchester, the city that sold out to Abu Dhabi”.
Newcastle stands at a similar crossroads. With the city in desperate need of regeneration, the club’s ownership have stated their ongoing commitment to that cause — but Manchester demonstrates how pitfalls sit hand in hand with opportunity.
Like Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s economic divestment is intractably linked to its human rights abuses. If Staveley’s assertion that “it’s not sportswashing, it’s investment” is to be accepted, that investment — in Newcastle the city, as well as Newcastle United the club — needs to be scrutinised.
“The past we inherit, the future we build,” reads the motto of the National Union of Mineworkers, a phrase which still flutters on banners at the region’s iconic Durham Miners’ Gala each year. A symbol of the region’s lost industry, it has scarcely ever felt more prescient.
This is the story of what is already happening in Newcastle, and what could be to come, from the Reuben family’s investments to Saudi Arabia’s long-term strategy. In so many ways, Newcastle is a city on the edge.
1. The Reubens
The Sports Direct signs are set to go. This time, however, it is not taking place on the facade of St James’ Park, one of the takeover’s iterative images, but in the shops of central Newcastle.
The Reuben family purchased Monument Mall, just north of Grey’s Monument, back in 2021. As part of their plans to launch a rooftop bar on the site, overlooking the stadium, Mike Ashley’s brand was served its notice. Though Sports Direct is moving to nearby Northumberland Street, the symbolism is telling.
Newcastle is no stranger to the Reubens, long predating the 10 per cent stake in the football club they bought in the takeover.
Secretive brothers David and Simon, who still lead the family’s business interests (Jamie Reuben is David’s son), bought large sections of Pilgrim Street in 2011, including the old police station, art deco Carliol House, and numerous office spaces. Immediately north of the Tyne Bridge, and formerly part of the A1, the road is one of Newcastle’s key conduits, although one which has fallen into dilapidation over recent decades.
The Reubens’ plan is a complete regeneration of that area, headlined by a huge new office for HMRC named Pilgrim’s Quarter. Alongside Monument Mall and the Central Arcade, bordering the city’s iconic Grey’s Monument, and Newcastle racecourse to the north of the city, the brothers own a large portion of Newcastle’s most important strategic locations, even setting aside their stake in St James’ Park.
The brothers have publicly stated their investment in the football club and city are linked. Post-takeover, Jamie Reuben said: “We will build a true community club, based upon our family’s knowledge of the city and in line with our plans that have been worked on closely with Newcastle City Council to deliver long-term sustainable growth for the area.”
Land Registry records show that the Reuben brothers own at least 21 different properties in Newcastle’s city centre via companies registered in the British Virgin Islands — but, of course, the football club’s ownership has been involved in property development before.
Sir John Hall became majority owner of Newcastle United in 1992. The property magnate had previously been behind the construction of the Gateshead MetroCentre in the 1980s, a major attempt to boost the city’s economy. Under his ownership, Kevin Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ also helped boost the image of Newcastle as a tourism and partying hotspot.
“The central fact in the recent history of the club and city is the aftermath of de-industrialisation,” says Alex Niven, an academic, Newcastle fan, and author of The North Will Rise Again, a study of the future facing northern cities. “The Sir John Hall attempt was one early effort at a response and regeneration; the MetroCentre rising out of the post-industrial swamp as a symbol of American consumerism.
“But Hall is small fry in terms of global capitalism — he’s a multi-millionaire, but the new ownership, with the Saudis, is a completely different order. It’s the same thing: an attempt by ultracapitalists to regenerate the city after de-industrialisation, but it’s just much bigger.”
Hall has been impressed with the new ownership since the takeover, sensing a similar feeling around the city to the one that existed during the renaissance of the 1990s. Like the Reubens, he owned both the football club and significant sites within the city — and knows how the two can work hand-in-hand.
“The Reubens are very good developers,” Hall tells The Athletic. “They’re doing major development in the city centre, and Newcastle is a good place to invest. That scheme they’re doing is huge, building new offices for HMRC — and they’ve got a very successful record. When you’ve got people like that at the centre, it helps to change the face of the city.”
Praise for the Reubens has not been ubiquitous. Of course, any property developer wants to turn a profit from their investment, but it is understood there has been anger at the council over the slowness of some aspects of the development. Building work on Pilgrim Street only commenced in early 2022, following the takeover.
The counter-argument is that these large construction projects need time — there were numerous planning objections to overcome — with Ged Bell, then the council’s cabinet member for employment and investment, calling the Pilgrim Street redevelopment “one of the most important city-centre regeneration opportunities in the north of England”.
This timing, nevertheless, feels more than coincidental. Local business leaders — who, like others cited in this piece, spoke off-record to protect relationships — expect there to be an element of Saudi investment in the upcoming projects.
As will become clear, in the North East, Newcastle United is not the only Saudi investment.
2. From the Middle East to the North East
Just after the takeover, representatives from PIF travelled to the North East to meet a number of club legends. A number of topics were discussed, amongst them ambassadorial roles.
Also on the agenda, however, was advice: what could or should be their priority for investment in the city. Hotels? Shops? Housing?
The message was clear. PIF was not just intending to put money into Newcastle United the club, but into Newcastle the city.
“It’s an investment in the region full-stop,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School. “Abu Dhabi has demonstrated that investing in a football club is not just about football alone; it’s about civic engagement and infrastructural development. What I think we’ll see is PIF serving as the conduit for other Saudi Arabian investments, not just in Newcastle but in the North East more generally.”
That is already being borne out. After Newcastle’s 2-0 win over Arsenal in May 2022, then director Majed Al-Sorour posted a video to LinkedIn, showing the celebrations from the owners’ box. Sat next to him were Staveley, Mehrdad Ghodoussi and Jamie Reuben.
Notes of congratulations filled the comments of that post. One reads: “Just shows what a bit of investment in the North East can achieve.”
Al-Sorour replies: “Very soon we will turn to the city and the area together and make them all better.”
Two other figures are visible in that video, sitting one row in front. Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud is the Saudi ambassador to the UK, and can be seen waving a Newcastle flag. Next to him is his wife, Lucy Cuthbert — niece of the Duke of Northumberland, and a member of the region’s powerful Percy family.
“A union of the House of Saud and the House of Percy, the genuine article in North East aristocracy,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.
The Percy family own around eight per cent of Northumberland, as well as extensive properties across Tyneside and London — such as the palatial Syon House in west London. In the North East, their ancestral seat is Alnwick Castle, used by Newcastle United for board meetings, as well as becoming Hogwarts for the first two Harry Potter films.
It is just one example of how Saudi Arabia is beginning to ingratiate itself with the region’s political elite.
According to sources in meetings, speaking anonymously, Prince Khalid is well-attuned to the Geordie humour and deeply passionate about investment in the North East. Another added: “He wants something very tangible — he wants results.”
George Percy, the son and heir of the Duke of Northumberland, studied Arabic at university before going on to work in the Middle East, where he focused on renewable energy — a key investment aim of the Saudi government, which the North East has the capability to provide.
It is worth going back to the region’s relationship with the Middle East. In some ways, their rise and fall are reflections of each other. Back in the 1970s, as British manufacturing and coal mining collapsed, Saudi Arabia profited from that decade’s oil crisis — charging the hyperdevelopment of the modern kingdom, as well as Mohammed bin Salman’s rule years later.
Bin Salman wants to divest Saudi Arabia’s economy, moving away from relying on oil and its volatilities. As well as domestic projects, this also comes with major international investments. London has experienced this in recent decades, with European leaders scrambling to secure their own deals.
For example, Boris Johnson’s trip to Riyadh in March 2022 coincided with the news that one of Saudi Arabia’s largest conglomerates would be investing almost £1billion into sustainable aviation fuel production in Teesside, run by Saudi firm Alfanar. Only weeks earlier, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), another petrochemical company on Teesside, had revealed plans to decarbonise operations with an £850m investment.
As these examples demonstrate, renewable energy is a key part of this drive. This March, a delegation of Saudi business figures visited Newcastle to investigate “cleantech” opportunities, while Prince Khalid has said Saudi Arabia wants to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Grant Shapps, during his brief stint as the UK’s energy secretary, stated that the Saudi “thirst for a greener future” matches Britain’s.
In this context, scrambling for domestic investment and international favour, the British government’s influence on the Newcastle takeover process — in which they considered its possible failure to be an “immediate risk” to the United Kingdom’s relationship with Saudi Arabia — makes clear sense. The British government has always denied attempting to influence the takeover or having a role in it.
Newcastle’s Saudi takeover: The UK government’s emails revealed
Last year, Newcastle and the government reached a £1.4billion devolution deal, lauded as creating 24,000 new jobs and leveraging £5bn of private sector investment. The opportunity is rife for further Saudi investment.
“These are not random investments in random cities,” says Chadwick. “It’s much more considered and strategic. The big advantage for me in Newcastle, and going down the coast, is the rivers going out into the sea.
“One of PIF’s major priorities is investing in alternative sources of energy. If the North East becomes an alternative energy capital or a sustainable energy capital of Britain, PIF through Newcastle United but also through Saudi Aramco and SABIC already has a presence in the region.”
In April, the North East Economic Forum (NEEF), a non-profit business organisation, founded the Saudi-North East England Trade and Investment Dialogue, aiming to connect regional leaders with international investors.
Prince Khalid spoke at its launch, alongside Berwick-upon-Tweed MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who has been involved in negotiations with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council; a trade bloc including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) at the Department for International Trade.
Alan Donnelly is chairman of the project, and a former MEP for the North East. He believes that, due to the North East’s links with Saudi Arabia through the football club, they are well positioned to receive first-mover advantage from devolution and any deal with the GCC.
“If you look at the Saudi economy: it’s booming,” he tells The Athletic. “Britain leaving the EU had an impact on the North East’s economy, so you have to look to other places to try to strengthen the commercial and business relationships.
“If you look at the North East, we’ve always been outward looking as a coastal community, with trading links to the rest of the world. With football, with the ambassador, the investments on Teesside — the potential is significant.”
The takeover has been a major spark in this, with business leaders in Saudi Arabia now much more aware of the region. In a trip to Riyadh in late September to discuss potential link-ups in the health economy, Donnelly reports meetings beginning with a discussion of Newcastle’s 8-0 win over Sheffield United, with much of the Saudi elite regarding them as “our club”. That, in turn, has a knock-on effect on investment.
“I was in Saudi Arabia last week, and I was speaking to the investment ministry, and they’re really keen to build a relationship with the North East of England,” Donnelly adds. “Yesterday, Prince Khalid, the ambassador, just said to me: ‘I’m so excited about the opportunities for northern England with what’s happening in Saudi.’”
There are already plans for direct flights between Newcastle International Airport and Saudi Arabia, while other opportunities being considered are investments in the health economy, automotive industry, wind energy, the deep-water docks, the digital sector, and Newcastle’s universities. Another potential project being explored is the construction of a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) during the early 2030s.
The Financial Times reported in January that SABIC had expressed interest in a proposed £3.8billion battery manufacturing plant in Blyth, which had been set to bring a transformational 3,000 jobs before the project collapsed, but had not made a formal bid.
“Newcastle United’s ownership triumvirate is a marriage made in heaven,” says Chadwick. “The Saudis are looking to invest in long-term revenue-generating assets, the Reubens know the real estate market, and Amanda Staveley knows them both and has been able to bring them together.
“I think that essentially, for the Saudi Arabians, (Staveley and the Reubens’) 10 per cent ownership is a commission fee for hunting out other opportunities on Tyneside or the North East more generally.”
3. Manchester — model or moral?
This is not the first time Staveley has been involved in this kind of deal. In 2008, she was closely involved in the takeover of Manchester City by ADUG.
Over the next decade, as City’s on-pitch success grew, the ownership group ploughed money into Manchester, including through its huge property portfolio.
In 2013, a 10-person team of officials, codenamed Project Falcon, had been collated by the UK government to convince the UAE to invest in the UK, with Freedom of Information requests made by The Guardian revealing ADUG were closely involved with these talks.
This governmental intervention — capitalising on the links between a football club and foreign investment — is not dissimilar to the circumstances of Newcastle’s takeover.
The result? Manchester now receives more foreign direct investment (FDI) than any other city in the UK, except for London. For some, their story stands as an example. For others, elements of this path serve as a warning.
In 2014, ADUG and Manchester City Council set up Manchester Life as a joint venture — a developer equally owned by both parties. The proposed plan (worth some £1billion) seemed simple. The council would provide publicly owned brownfield sites for regeneration, with ADUG providing the finance behind affordable housing.
“What the club gave Abu Dhabi was this commercial foothold in the city,” says Nick McGeehan, co-author of Easy Cities To Buy, a report by non-profit FairSquare into the investment. “They developed strong links with the political class. And then when the British government wanted this extra investment, Abu Dhabi was well placed to get this massive property deal.”
As of last July, the development has delivered 1,468 housing units, but questions remain about the deal’s suitability.
In The Sunday Times’ 2019 article “Manchester, the city that sold out to Abu Dhabi”, it is claimed the council had not received any financial benefit from the arrangement, despite sharing some of the project’s risks. At that time, the council also admitted the project had not met standard affordable housing requirements, with one developer describing it as a “sweetheart deal with Abu Dhabi”.
Three years later, a report called “Manchester Offshored”, led by academics from the Urban Institute, built on this reporting. They claimed this land, comprising nine sites, was sold to ADUG at a price well under market value and on unusually long 999-year leases. The typical lease length is between 150 and 250 years.
“Our assessment of the Manchester Life development is that Manchester City Council ‘sold the family silver too cheap’,” the report summarises. “It represents a transfer of public wealth to private hands that is difficult to justify as prudent.”
Responding to the Urban Institute’s report, a Manchester City Council spokesperson stressed that the land was valued by independent experts and reflected a context, after the 2008 financial crisis, in which there was little market interest in the sites. They added that the deal was envisaged as a “longer-term arrangement” which would see the council receiving income in future years, such as a recent £3m overage payment received earlier this year.
Yet when viewed as a timeline, the purchase of Manchester City appears a clear spark for this investment, especially given the land’s location around the Etihad Stadium — though not everyone agrees with that premise.
“I don’t think the UAE needed to buy Manchester City to put money into Ancoats and New Islington, but could have done it separately,” says Tom Forth, head of data at Open Innovations, which studies the economics of northern cities. “In Manchester, the answer to investment is almost always ‘yes’, no matter who you are.”
Either way, parallels between the UAE’s investment in Manchester and potential Saudi Arabian investments in Newcastle are clear to see. It is understood that Newcastle City Council has seen Manchester’s redevelopment around the Etihad as a positive model.
Between 2015 and 2020, FDI in the North East has increased from £16.2bn to £24.5bn — but is still only a fraction of the North West’s £73.9bn. Saudi investment represents an opportunity for the region. However, the Manchester Life scheme also shows the risks.
Jonathan Silver, a senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield, was a co-author of Manchester Offshored.
“One thing is the potential speed of this investment in Newcastle,” Silver explains. “If you’re already using Manchester as a model, things can be moved forward much quicker, because the blueprint is in place. If it was cobbled together in Manchester, it can be professionalised and accelerated here.”
In just two years, these foundations have already been laid, with relationships formed between the relevant stakeholders. The government intervened in the takeover. The Saudi ambassador has a personal stake. Organisations have been created to foster Saudi-North East business relationships. Funds set free by devolution await.
“Newcastle hasn’t had the kind of urban development you’ll find in Leeds, Liverpool, or Manchester,” adds Silver. “Maybe this might be their one shot — and when you’re desperate and you don’t have enough other options available, you’re more likely to give too much away on the financing, the reputational risks, and you do a bad deal.”
4. Newcastle, the ‘what next?’ of the north
There may be unease over the identity of the potential investors, but given the city’s disastrous child poverty and unemployment rates, it is clear why Newcastle’s councillors and business leaders are desperate for investment, regardless of its source. These issues are complex and vast, but also pressing and local.
“This goes back to the failure to invest in cities in the 1980s, particularly with the immediate context of austerity, which just wiped out council budgets,” says Niven. “If someone walks along with a lot of money, they’re going to roll out the red carpet.”
Newcastle United’s ownership are uniquely positioned to deliver this wider investment. They have the funds, they have the motive, they have the will, and they have the local knowledge.
“Amanda Staveley is from North Yorkshire, not the North East, but she will be acutely aware of the region’s economic and social circumstances,” adds Chadwick. “You’ve got high rates of poverty, you’ve got high rates of unemployment, you’ve got low rates of business start-ups.
“This is fertile ground for investors from overseas to move in and serve as something of a saviour to the local population. There’s a view that the central government in London has failed the North East, and so it’s left to Japanese companies, like Nissan, and Gulf investors, like the PIF, to create jobs, create wealth, create the socio-cultural conditions in which people locally can prosper.”
Local politicians are left in a unique position: they must both encourage investment while ensuring its conditions are the best possible deal for the city. The emotions connected with the football team in a one-club city — and the associated political expediency — is another complicating factor.
“The importance of Newcastle as a club, as a community within the city, was cherished and nurtured because of its importance to people,” says one individual, speaking anonymously, who served on the council during the takeover. “We’d never have it any other way. There was a desire for the city council to be associated.”
For example, when the Premier League blocked the first attempt at a takeover in August 2020, Pat Ritchie, the council’s then chief executive, wrote a letter asking to meet to reach a “compromise”. She said the takeover would be “transformational”, adding that “members of the consortium spearheading this deal have made a clear long-term commitment to the city to help drive growth and regeneration.”
It was notable that when the takeover was completed, tweets from both Jamie Reuben and Ghodoussi thanked Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, with the former calling her one of the people “who made this day possible”.
For her part, Onwurah said at the time she would “continue to talk about sportswashing”, saying before last month’s Saudi Arabia friendly at St James’ Park that “Saudi Arabia, whose sovereign wealth fund is the effective owner of Newcastle United, continues to have one of the most atrocious human rights records in the world… This does not reflect the values of our city.”
Few political figures have been outwardly critical of Saudi investment — whether in the football club or in the North East more widely. One exception has been Jane Byrne, a councillor for Monument, a ward that includes St James’ Park. As well as opposing the Stack fan zone in Strawberry Place, Byrne also met with pressure group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing and Saudi human rights activist Lina al-Hathloul. She was the only local politician to do so.
For the most part, the prevailing political climate is that, given the existing Gulf investment in other UK cities, and Newcastle’s own desperate need for regeneration, the city should not be held to more stringent standards or asked to act any differently.
After the example of Manchester, however, it is crucial this investment receives full scrutiny. In many ways, Newcastle is more vulnerable given its status as the largest one-club city in the country — especially taking the wider region into account.
“From north-west County Durham up to the Scottish border, pretty much everyone supports the same team,” explains Niven. “That is almost unique: that identification of a place with a football club. It would be very politically difficult for any councillors or MPs to criticise the club and its current ownership.
“There’s the beggars-can’t-be-choosers aspect: people feel as if finally someone’s investing in the region. It clearly doesn’t feel like the right kind of investment, given Saudi Arabia’s record. But for most people, you just think, ‘What is the alternative?’. Stay as the most socio-economically depressed part of the country for another 40 years?”
Since the Saudi takeover, pride has been restored to the football club — achieved through shrewd decision-making, appointing the right people to the right places and significant investment.
In this light, it is understandable why people may be tempted to hand over the keys to the city along with those to St James’ Park. The search for regeneration’s silver bullet has been decades in the making, with both the Reubens and Saudi ownership offering solutions. To do this without oversight, however, brings with it significant risks.
Sources at the council insist any potential deals will go through due process.
There is one central question to all of this. To what extent is the purchase of Newcastle United an end in itself — or do Saudi Arabia’s leadership see it as unlocking the door to a region?
Given the UAE’s deep links in Manchester, there are competitive, geopolitical reasons to do the same in the North East.
“They’re certainly very aware of Abu Dhabi’s successful ventures, and there certainly has been a rivalry between the two over the past 25 to 30 years,” says David Butter, a political analyst and associate fellow at Chatham House. “Saudi Arabia wants to emulate and go further than what their Gulf rivals have achieved.”
In that sense, it is worth thinking of Newcastle, alongside Manchester, as a node in an international network. Qatari interest in Manchester United, alongside their existing investments in London, is another connective string, as Gulf states battle for European outposts.
“Newcastle is effectively now an actor on the world stage again,” says Silver. “It used to be a powerful economic hub in shaping imperial networks. Now, it plays a very different role in globalisation.”
These are wider questions over what the future of the north is. Many have felt left behind by a centralised government, with the cancellation of the northern section of HS2 this week just the latest example. International investment — and the influence which comes with it — has been the natural replacement. Eddie Howe has spoken about defiance, about Newcastle being focused on themselves rather than external perceptions, or being considered anyone’s second-favourite team. Given the struggles the region has faced, it is clear why many feel the same way about the city.
“It goes to the heart of what Britain is in the 21st century,” Silver adds. “It’s where we sit in the post-industrial era since the end of the Empire, how the country has become entangled with the Gulf around economic and defence interests, and how that plays out in people’s everyday lives. The takeover of Newcastle United, and then perhaps the city, is the stage for that wider reflection.”
A final story. In the 1960s, Newcastle City Council leader T Dan Smith embarked on a radical programme to regenerate the city, razing slums, building the central motorway, and began to lay plans for the Metro system. His council was also at least partially responsible for building civic spaces such as the shopping centre Eldon Square, the Civic Centre, and the airport. In 1974, his reputation collapsed after he was imprisoned on corruption charges.
But during that heyday, he coined one phrase encapsulating his lofty ideals, drawing on visions of a designed utopia. Newcastle: “Brasilia of the North”.
A football club in the heart of the city holds the heart of the city’s future. In 20 years’ time, what will have taken Brasilia’s place in that nickname?
(Top image: iStock; design: Sam Richardson)