Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sports: Another Field of Conflict Between Saudi Arabia and Qatar

Specials- 2018 Asian Games
Qatar’s Yousef Ali (R) fights for the ball with Saudi Arabia’s Mojtaba Alsalem during the men’s handball main round Group 1 match between Qatar and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 22, 2018. Photo AFP

The Saudi General Authority for Competition fined in August the Qatari network beIN Sports, which specializes in the coverage and broadcasting of sports events worldwide, in a move that is part of the diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and its allies and the state of Qatar. Saudi Arabia and its allies in the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet have been blockading Qatar since June 2017. They accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and have demanded that Doha cut its ties with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as to close media channels it funds, most notably Al Jazeera.

The fine was established at $2.6 million due to “violations,” according to the Saudi General Authority for Competition, via “monopolizing” practices allegedly forcing subscribers to subscribe to non-sports channels in order to be able to watch the Euro 2016 football games. In a statement, the Authority said: “The General Authority for Competition has since March 2016 received several complaints from beIN subscribers due to its violation of competition rules in the kingdom. The Authority’s board thus investigated these complaints and looked into the possibility that beIN and relevant parties violated the competition’s regulations … these are clear violations of the competition’s rules. The board of directors thus decided to take the appropriate measures to end these practices and the monopoly violations committed by beIN.”

This most recent blow against Qatar from Saudi Arabia comes after beIN Sports, owner of the exclusive rights to show World Cup games in the MENA region, accused in June TV channel BeoutQ, a pirate broadcaster based in the Middle East, of stealing and illegally broadcasting beIN’s coverage of the World Cup in Russia. British newspaper The Independent reported in October beIN’s demands of $1 billion in damages from Saudi Arabia for the kingdom’s alleged involvement in “the most widespread piracy of sports broadcasting that the world has ever seen.”

In mid-June 2018, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) issued a statement saying that it is “aware that a pirate channel named BeoutQ has illegally distributed the opening matches of 2018 FIFA World Cup™ in the MENA region” and that “FIFA takes infringements of its intellectual property very seriously and is exploring all options to stop the infringement of its rights, including in relation to action against legitimate organizations that are seen to support such illegal activities.” The organization said it was considering legal action against BeoutQ.

In response, Turki al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s chairman of the General Sports Authority, criticized on Twitter FIFA and the UEFA Champions League and insinuated that BeIn Sports was a propaganda tool for Qatar. The Saudi Ministry of Media also rejected the accusation, issuing a statement saying “through its Ministry of Commerce and Investment, Saudi Arabia (KSA) has relentlessly combatted BeoutQ’s activities within the country.” It also said that: “beIN Sports is a subsidiary of the Al Jazeera Media Network….Al Jazeera provides a media platform for terrorists to propagate their violent message. KSA has also banned broadcasts by beIN Sports in Saudi Arabia for the same reason…..beIN Sports has amplified its offensive propaganda during the World Cup 2018 – which is ironic because the World Cup is supposed to be a demonstration of how football can bring nations together in harmony.”

Elsewhere in the region, opinions on the Qatar blockade are blurring the lines between political and sports-related commentary. For example, Egyptian sports commentator Essam Shaltout said: “I think the crisis over Qatar’s financing of terrorism should motivate other Arab countries into presenting alternatives to beIN to end its domination” (Egypt is on the side of Saudi Arabia in criticizing and cutting ties with Qatar). On the other hand, beIn Sports pointed out that the recent dispute “sends a deeply troubling message to the international business community about the arbitrary conditions of commerce and lack of the rule of law in Saudi Arabia.”

Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, told Fanack Chronicle that “Qatar has been investing heavily in the field of sports for more than ten years now because it is a way to raise its profile and global visibility, build a sustainable market, exercise soft power, create a national social cohesion and tackle diabetes through exercise. Qatar is taking sports seriously, which culminated in its nomination to host the 2022 World Cup. It already hosts yearly competitions like the World Athletic Championship and has become something like a sports events destination.” On another level, Paris Saint-Germain football club (PSG), owned by Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, payed $257 million for Brazilian football star Neymar, an historical record for such a transfer, in a move that Chadwick described as “using football to make a positive global statement about itself and its ambitions.”

On the other hand, he explained that Saudi Arabia started to address the significance of sports only three years ago with their 2030 Vision. “It is playing catch-up with the rest of the Gulf countries and has been intensifying the pace for 15 months. Sports have become the center of the feud with the two countries.” For example, Saudi Arabia has been lobbying intensively all over the world to discourage the attention on Qatar for the World Cup through a campaign of misinformation. It has also notably focused global attention on the way migrants are treated during the construction of the 2022 facilities, despite Saudi Arabia being at the same level regarding migrant workers’ rights.

“Saudi Arabia apparently has a deal with FIFA to fund the next Clubs World Cup so that Qatar wouldn’t be able to host,” Chadwick said to Fanack Chronicle. “It’s a very bullish response to Qatar; they are constantly squabbling. Saudi Arabia now tries to position itself as a combat sports destination, for example. Sports are definitely being used for reaching an end, but I also think it is an end in itself in the current global context, as economical and political alliances are now embedded in sports deals.”

In the end, whichever country wins the sports race, it shouldn’t prevent sports fans all over the world from continue to watch their favorite events without thinking about the politics at stake behind the scenes.

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