As the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia took his seat in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium to watch his team face Russia in the opening game of the 2018 Fifa World Cup, thousands – potentially millions – of people back in his home country were watching too. It was to be a 5-0 demolition at the hands of the unfancied host nation, but more remarkable than the scoreline was the manner in which the match was broadcast in the kingdom.
Every single person in Saudi Arabia watching the match was doing so through an illegal live feed that had been set up as a result of a diplomatic crisis in the Middle East.
The issue revolves around four countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – who cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, as a result of the country’s alleged support for terrorism. The row means a complete blockade by “land, sea and air” between the coalition and Qatar, who happens to hold the broadcasting rights to the Fifa 2018 World Cup.
Doha-based network beIN Sports, which is a spinoff of the Al Jazeera news network, acquired the rights to all 64 games of the World Cup in Russia and was set to reach a deal with broadcasters in Saudi Arabia to show the matches. But nine days before the opening game kicked off between Russia and Saudi Arabia, the talks broke down.
Instead, beIN’s coverage was hijacked by a pirate network called beoutQ – the ‘Q’ presumably standing for Qatar – and illegally broadcast in the kingdom on a scale that has never been seen before.
Like many other piracy operations, beoutQ started by streaming content through a website, which had been geo-blocked so that only people in Saudi Arabia could watch it. However, within months of it launching last year, beoutQ had expanded to offer 10 different beIN channels via the ArabSAT satellite broadcasting network. Complete with set-top boxes, paid subscriptions, advertising, and commercial deals with hotels and other venues, the operation has all the infrastructure of a corporate television network, without ever having paid a single penny for content.
“The scale and sophistication of this commercial theft – and the length of time over which it has occurred – is unprecedented,” Tom Keaveny, managing director of beIN, tells The Independent. “This piracy by beoutQ and Arabsat is not being carried out by a small outfit operating out of someone’s bedroom. This is theft on a massive commercial scale with multi-million dollar funding underpinning it.”
Beyond Fifa, it has drawn in Uefa, Formula 1, World Tennis and other major governing bodies in sports. And beoutQ isn’t only piggy-backing off beIN. NBCUniversal and Eleven Sports have both issued statements claiming that their content is being illegally distributed through the set-top boxes.
BeIN is working with Fifa and Uefa to inform them of the rights violations, with the network’s general legal counsel, Sophie Jordan, telling The Independent that the football authorities have been provided with “independently verified and utterly irrefutable” evidence that beoutQ operates in Saudi Arabia with the “tacit consent” of the Saudi authorities. If Fifa fails to take decisive action against the illegal operation, Jordan says “the whole commercial model of world football will ultimately be undermined.”
Both Uefa and World Tennis issued statements that explicitly referred to beoutQ as a Saudi-based operation involved in “industrial-scale illegal piracy”, however the Saudi Ministry of Information responded to the allegations by threatening to sue. “Allegations of broadcasting beoutQ channels from Saudi Arabia are not based in evidence at all,” the ministry said in an infographic. “We will monitor all false accusations and we will sue those who are behind them.”
A 116-page document compiled by beIN’s legal team, seen by The Independent, lists evidence allegedly pointing towards Saudi support of beoutQ. The investigation claims a prominent Saudi businessman, and owner of a substantial Saudi media company, is behind the operation. It also lists key figures relating to the Saudi Royal Court who have promoted beoutQ on social media.
In late June, Saudi Arabia appeared to at least acknowledge the operation by claiming to have seized 12,000 beoutQ set-top boxes. No evidence was offered to support this, with a spokesperson for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman simply telling AFP: “12,000 devices have been confiscated in recent months, although the actual figure is in my opinion higher. Saudi Arabia respects the issue of the protection of intellectual rights and international conventions on this subject.”
Due to the illegitimacy of boutQ’s operation, it is difficult to determine its true scale and whether 12,000 set-top boxes would even represent a significant portion. The Independent have sought comment from beoutQ in relation to this matter but has received no response. There appears to be no spokesperson to ask for viewing figures, or even query the number of sales of set-top boxes, but a spokesperson for beIN points to the hundreds of thousands of posts relating to beoutQ across social media to give some idea of its reach. By that measure alone, they say, beoutQ is easily one of the most powerful TV networks in the region.
BeIN has spent millions of dollars on investigating the piracy outfit, compiling a legal case against it, and developing anti-piracy measures, but nothing has been enough to put a stop to the operation. BeIN managing director Keavney estimates that it has cost the TV network 17 per cent of revenues, totalling many more millions of dollars.
But despite all of this time, money and resources spent trying to put a stop to it, beoutQ shows no sign of stopping. This, Keavney claims, could have huge ramifications way beyond the diplomatic dispute in the Middle East.
“BeoutQ and Arabsat have opened Pandora’s box,” Keavney warns. “If it’s possible to steal from us, it’s possible to steal from any broadcaster or rights holder in the world.”
The consequence of this would be devastating for the likes of Fifa and Formula 1. Corporate scale piracy not only reduces but also destroys the value of sports rights, meaning legitimate networks would only see value in paying a fraction for the rights in the future.
If the diplomatic crisis continues, things could get even more complicated for the next World Cup, which is set to take place in Qatar in 2022. The nature of the boycott could result in the absurd scenario that the first ever World Cup to take place in the Middle East may not feature countries from the region, apart from the host nation.
While Fifa may want to steer clear of a dispute rooted in politics, football’s governing body has been accused of not doing enough to protect its rights holders.
Sitting alongside the Saudi Crown Prince in Luzhniki stadium on the opening day of the World Cup was Fifa president Gianni Infantino. Investors from the wealthy kingdom are part of a consortium of investors behind an as-yet unpaid $25 billion funding initiative for Fifa.
A senior figure at beIN, who chose not to be named, suggests that the estimated $200 million received for the broadcasting rights for the Middle East and North Africa region may be overlooked by Fifa, as Infantino has his eyes on the larger prize.
Following their 5-0 drubbing, Saudi Arabia failed to make it out of the group stages in their next two games. But while Saudi Arabia may be out of the World Cup, the World Cup might not be out of Saudi Arabia any time soon.