Last week, the English Premier League revealed it was commencing legal action against Saudi-based sports channel BeoutQ, describing it as a “highly organized and sophisticated” form of piracy. BeoutQ is already facing action from several sports bodies, but the announcement from the world’s most popular sports league is arguably the biggest blow yet.
The dispute centres on BeoutQ’s theft of sports and entertainment content from Qatari broadcaster BeIN. Despite denials from Saudi officials, a string of neutral companies have corroborated claims of Riyadh’s involvement. The affair has been hugely damaging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and his regime, denting their attempts to win global influence at a time when their Qatari rivals are gearing up to host the football World Cup in 2022. If BeoutQ was an attempt to curb Qatar’s growing soft power, it has backfired spectacularly.
When Saudi Arabia launched its blockade of Qatar back in June 2017, this state of affairs would have been inconceivable. The whole dispute, after all, was rooted in soft power, specifically the burgeoning international influence of Qatar’s state-funded broadcast network Al-Jazeera which, the Saudis claimed, was providing a platform for dissent and extremism. Qatari observers say the boycott was, at least partly, rooted in jealousy over the World Cup: Riyadh and its allies have consistently objected to Doha’s hosting of the event, and pushed for their tiny neighbour to be stripped of the rights.
But Qatar’s influence in the football world, the product of many years’ worth of investments, provided a serious impediment to Saudi Arabia’s attempt to isolate its neighbour. BeIN, a sports-focused spin-off of Al-Jazeera, had rushed to buy up the rights to air matches from the Premier League, the Champions League and the World Cup as part of a multi-pronged offensive for bidding rights prior to the boycott. Saudi Arabia, whose young population was besotted with European football clubs such as Barcelona and Manchester United, was BeIN’s largest market in the Middle East.
Two months after the boycott, BeoutQ began broadcasting. It started out as a relatively small website (albeit one enthusiastically backed by several prominent Saudis), but now it’s developed into a highly professional operation encompassing 10 encrypted channels, with its own advertisements, branding and commentary. As well as sports such as football, tennis and motor racing, it’s branched out into movies and series. BeIN’s MENA managing director has described it as the biggest commercial theft ever seen in the realm of sports and entertainment.
As BeoutQ’s reach has increased, so has the condemnation. As well as launching its own $1 billion lawsuit, BeIN has spent months lobbying global organizations to do likewise, a campaign which has brought action from sports bodies such as Fifa and Formula 1, as well as the World Trade Organization. The backlash has been fuelled by reports from cyber-security experts such as Cisco, citing “irrefutable proof” that BeoutQ’s content is being provided through Saudi Arabia’s state-backed satellite operator Arabsat. Now BeIN has launched a website containing a “dossier of evidence” about BeoutQ and the people behind it. Riyadh has attempted to rebuff BeIN’s allegations, claiming the network is backed by Cuba and Colombia, but their reaction of these claims has only increased the scrutiny.
For Saudi Arabia, the row is doubly embarrassing given its own attempts to win soft power through sport. MBS, who has hob-nobbed with cultural icons such as Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the hope of presenting a modern, Western image, sees football as a key part of his global PR strategy. The country’s federation has unveiled plans to create one of the best football tournaments in the world, recruiting Western officials such as Roger Draper, former head of Sport England, to create a Middle Eastern answer to the Premier League.
The BeoutQ row, which follows several high-profile cases of unpaid wages by Saudi clubs, has repelled the global football community just when Riyadh is seeking its endorsement. What’s more, in the wake of the Khashoggi affair and the war in Yemen, the broadcasting spat only deepens popular suspicions about Saudi Arabia; instead of resembling a reformist success story, it looks like a rogue actor which can’t be trusted.
Now even Riyadh’s own sports coups are being tarnished. Last week Italian giants Juventus and AC Milan contested their Supercoppa in Riyadh, an event which should have provided a huge boost to Saudi Arabia’s profile. But the match, decided by Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, was overshadowed by BeIN’s vehement objections, and the publication of its ‘dossier’, which rather conveniently went live the same day. Having spent €20 million to secure the hosting rights, Saudi Arabia had to watch its arch-rival walk away with the media spoils.
The following day, the Saudi football team met Qatar in the Asia Cup. Again, the PR odds were stacked in Riyadh’s favor: the match, after all, was played in Abu Dhabi, a key ally in the boycott of Doha. But the so-called ‘Blockade Derby’ ended in a 2-0 win for Qatar, while many journalists took the opportunity to focus on Saudi Arabia’s attempts to throttle its tiny neighbour, highlighting the restrictions faced by Qatari fans and journalists.
Of course, Qatar has faced its own share of unwelcome headlines. The emirate remains mired in allegations that it bought the World Cup with bribes, charges it has denied. And, despite the emirate having passed a raft of new labour reforms, rights groups highlight the work that remains to be done to protect the migrant workers building its World Cup stadiums. Yet in contrast with the global uproar around the Saudi government’s recent actions, media attention around Qatar has been relatively dialled down.
Even if allegations by the Premier League and BeIN of state involvement in BeoutQ prove false, it seems the damage has been done. Saudi Arabia, having attempted to claw back its neighbour’s soft power advantage, has only succeeded in scoring an own goal.