Revealed: Newcastle chairman’s links to Saudi ‘anti-corruption’ drive

Originally posted to The Guardian website, 16 October 2021

Yasir al-Rumayyan, the new non-executive chairman of Newcastle United, was involved in a controversial “anti-corruption” campaign in Saudi Arabia that included the transfer of assets on behalf of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Details of Rumayyan’s role – including the transfer of a charter jet company to the Public Investment Fund (PIF), where he serves as governor – are contained in court documents that shed light on his relationship with Prince Mohammed.

The inner workings of the PIF have been a source of intense interest after it led a consortium that acquired Newcastle United this month. The state-owned sovereign wealth fund is run by Rumayyan and chaired by the crown prince.

The Saudi-led consortium withdrew its bid to acquire Newcastle in 2020 amid concerns that the PIF was part the Saudi state. But the Premier League approved the deal this month and said it had been given “legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control” the club. The Premier League has not disclosed the nature of the assurances.

Yasir al-Rumayyan, Simon and David Reuben and Amanda Staveley.

Internal Saudi documents filed to a civil court in Canada as part of an unrelated case show that in 2017 a close aide to Prince Mohammed ordered Rumayyan – who is formally referred to in memos as “his excellency” and the “supervisor” of the PIF – to transfer 20 companies to the sovereign wealth fund as part of the anti-corruption campaign.

One of 20 seized companies, the documents show, was a charter jet company that was later alleged to have been used in the Saudi plot to kill Jamal Khashoggi. US intelligence agencies concluded in an intelligence report that was declassified in February that Prince Mohammed approved Khashoggi’s gruesome murder.

There is no suggestion that Rumayyan had any involvement in or knowledge of the alleged use of the jets in the operation that killed the Washington Post journalist.

The documents suggest, however, that a senior aide to the crown prince was able to order Rumayyan to take actions related to the PIF on Prince Mohammed’s behalf. The PIF declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not return a request for comment.

Rumayyan is a former banker who serves as governor of the PIF and chairman of the oil firm Saudi Aramco. He has overseen billions of dollars in investment by the PIF, including in Uber, Facebook, Disney and Citibank.

The Harvard Business School-educated executive is reportedly due to attend his first Newcastle match on Sunday in his new role as non-executive chairman of the club.

The internal Saudi documents were filed in a Canadian court as part of a civil case that has been brought by Saudi-owned entities against a former senior Saudi intelligence official, Saad Aljabri, a critic of Prince Mohammed who in turn has accused the Saudi government of trying to assassinate him in Canada. The Saudi government has denied the claims.

The court records include copies of memos that were sent to his “excellency the supervisor of the Public Investment Fund” by Mohammad al-Sheikh, a senior Saudi adviser to Prince Mohammed.

They relate to the infamous anti-corruption campaign led by the crown prince from November 2017, when 400 of Saudi Arabia’s richest individuals – including princes and ministers – were rounded up and held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh in what was later condemned by witnesses and critics as a purge involving torture, coercion and the expropriation of billions in assets into Saudi coffers.

Mohammad al-Sheikh, the close adviser to the crown prince, defended the campaign in a 2018 interview on CBS. “The anti-corruption crackdown was very simple. We had a serious problem with corruption,” he said. “We had to do what we did at the Ritz.”

The memos are labelled “top secret, not for circulation and very urgent”. The first memo, sent on 22 December 2017, calls on Rumayyan to “transfer” a number of companies to the PIF’s ownership that were seized as part of the anti-corruption purge.

The second memo, dated two days later, repeats the order with greater urgency and tells Rumayyan to “immediately approve the completion of the necessary procedures”.

Saudi documents filed to the court show that in response, Rumayyan sent a handwritten and signed memo on 26 December 2017 to an associate ordering him to “do what’s necessary as fast as possible” to comply with the order. Among the 20 companies included on a list to be transferred to the PIF was Sky Prime Aviation Services, a charter jet company based in Riyadh.

The name of the charter jet company resurfaced in 2019 in a report by Agnes Callamard, the former UN special rapporteur who investigated the Khashoggi killing. She concluded that the team of Saudi agents who killed the journalist used two jets operated by Sky Prime Aviation to travel to and from Istanbul before the murder in the Saudi consulate on October 2018.

CNN first reported in February 2021 that court documents showed that the two private jets used by the Saudi assassination squad were owned by a company that had previously been seized by Prince Mohammed. But other details from the court documents relating to Rumayyan’s role in PIF’s acquisition of the charter jet firm and other companies have not previously been reported.

The PIF declined to respond to a request for comment from Rumayyan and did not respond to a question about the control of Sky Prime Aviation Services. The Saudi embassy in Washington and the Premier League also declined to comment.

Rumayyan has in the past described the abrupt manner in which he was selected by the crown prince to lead the PIF as governor in 2015. “I received a call … The crown prince heard of me. I got the call. I thought it was an interview [to lead the PIF], but it was, like: ‘Here is what I want you to do. One, two, three,’” Rumayyan said in a 2020 interview with the Carlyle Group chief executive, David Rubenstein.

After Rumayyan initially said he could start the job in three months, the crown prince told him he had “one month, and you will do it”. A week later Prince Mohammed called back and told Rumayyan he was starting “immediately”.

“We are all very proud to be Saudis and to participate in the positive changes the country is living and doing right now,” Rumayyan said in the Rubenstein interview.

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