Last October on the Red Sea, British financier Amanda Staveley and her husband stepped aboard the megayacht of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Also among the party were Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and global business chiefs including SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son and Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani.
This week one of the fruits of that trip became evident. Discussions on the yacht Serene helped revive an attempt led by the Saudi fund to buy the Premier League football club Newcastle United. Despite football being suspended in the coronavirus pandemic, an agreement was reached this week for a £300m purchase of the club from retail tycoon Mike Ashley. The talks were led by Ms Staveley, whose private equity firm will also invest.
The acquisition — Ms Staveley’s first with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — marks a return to high-profile dealmaking for a woman best known for orchestrating the purchase of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi royal Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan in 2008, and shortly afterwards a £3.5bn Abu Dhabi investment as part of an emergency cash call by Barclays bank at the height of the financial crisis.
The 47-year-old Yorkshirewoman has long provided tabloid fodder thanks to her glamour and former relationship with Prince Andrew. But those who have worked with her say she has kept her position as a trusted intermediary for Middle Eastern billions through charm, an eye for technical detail and a ferocious determination to make deals she envisages become reality.
“She’s completely focused, like a dog with a bone. She will not let go,” said Rob Noel, former chief executive of the property company Land Securities. “Amanda seems to be trusted at a very senior level [in the Middle East].”
He added: “Many intermediaries turn out to be broking you to another broker who is broking you to another broker and eventually you get to the man or the woman with the money. But Amanda seems to get there in a pretty direct line.”
Ms Staveley is the daughter of Yorkshire landed gentry; her father founded the Lightwater Valley theme park. But in her youth her parents told her she would need to earn or marry money because, in keeping with family tradition, they would leave their estate to their eldest son.
As a child she dreamt of being a stuntwoman, repeatedly watching the daredevil sequences in James Bond films. After dropping out of university she borrowed money to buy a restaurant popular with Gulf racehorse owners. Her next venture was a high-tech conference centre that was bought by the listed communications group EuroTelecom, but the company’s collapse in the dotcom bust forced Ms Staveley into insolvency.
Undeterred, she made the most of contacts garnered through her previous businesses and set up PCP Capital Partners, her advisory and private equity firm, which has offices in Dubai and London.
One person who has worked with her said: “She is very clever at penetrating these deep-pocketed circles and she does it with charm and persistence. She hobnobs with these guys and some of these guys are not very sophisticated . . . She has a way of dealing with these pockets that is anti the Wall Street playbook . . . I think part of her success is that she is systematically underestimated.”
The PIF, Mr Rummayan and Prince Mohammed have been courted aggressively by some of the world’s largest investors, including figures such as Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman, BlackRock’s Larry Fink and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon.
Ms Staveley’s firm has been involved in about £8bn of deals over the past decade, including a series of property and distressed debt purchases on behalf of Saudi and Emirati investors; she advised on the 2015 Qatari acquisition for about £1bn of three London hotels including Claridge’s. For six years PCP ran a Yemeni telecoms group. But other would-be blockbuster deals, such as a Chinese-backed attempt to invest in Liverpool football club, have foundered.
Elsewhere some have queried her involvement in deals: an adviser with knowledge of the PIF said some senior staff questioned why they were doing the Newcastle deal through PCP rather than directly.
In 2011 Ms Staveley married Mehrdad Ghodoussi, a former banker who is now managing partner of her firm; the pair live at London’s Park Lane with their five-year-old son. Two years after her wedding she was diagnosed with the gene for Huntington’s disease, a rare and incurable brain disorder. That added urgency to an already driven personality, say those close to her.
Her diary for the coming months is full. With asset prices dropping in the pandemic, Ms Staveley is eyeing further deals. And in June hearings begin in her £1.5bn litigation against Barclays, in which she accused the bank of deceit over payments made to Qatar to secure its investment in the financial crisis cash call. The bank denies the claims.
If the Newcastle deal is approved by the Premier League, Ms Staveley’s company will act as asset managers for the club. She will then need to turn her charm on to a devoted fan base desperate to move on from years in the doldrums. “What she’s got to do [at Newcastle] is carefully manage expectations,” said a senior executive who has worked with her.
That may be challenging. Among the club’s fans is Alex Hart, a 26-year-old chef from the area who — once the UK’s high streets reopen — has pledged to celebrate the deal with a new tattoo: a portrait of Ms Staveley. He said: “If she’s part of the team that helps make Newcastle great again, I’m a fan of hers.”
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