Saudis blocked from watching World Cup games with Qatar relations back in spotlight


Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are back in the spotlight after the Saudi Ministry of Media blocked a Qatar-owned streaming platform from broadcasting FIFA World Cup matches during the opening week of the tournament.

Qatar firm BeIN Sports, run by the Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, owns the broadcast rights for the World Cup in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The matches in the region are divided up between 22 free-to-air games, while the remaining 42 broadcast on a streaming platform called TOD TV, in all 24 countries in the MENA region.

Just one hour and fifteen minutes before the first World Cup match began last Sunday, however, beIN executives became aware that their streaming platform had been blocked in Saudi Arabia, as first reported by the New York Times on Friday.

This was despite the fact Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, sat just two seats away from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Qatari ruling Emir.

The FIFA president Gianni Infantino sat between the pair, who had presented a united front during the opening days of the World Cup in Qatar, with MBS and the Emir photographed wearing scarves for one another’s teams.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani (standing) next to Gianni Infantino and Mohammed bin Salman (Photo: Getty Images)

Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (standing) next to Gianni Infantino and Mohammed bin Salman (Photo: Getty Images)

There has also been much made of Qatar being the host of the first Arab World Cup and a developing narrative in the region that any criticism of Qatar, particularly on the matter of LGBTQ rights and visibility, represented an attack on the region as a whole. Only on November 20, the Saudi state news agency reported that MBS had ordered his country to support Qatar in its World Cup by every means possible.

Behind the scenes, however, an extraordinary row is brewing between the Qataris and Saudis.

Between 2017 and 2021, relations between the countries worsened during a blockade of Qatar. This was spearheaded by the Saudis and supported by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, all of whom cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Qatari planes and ships were also banned from the airspace and seas of their neighbours.

This coincided with the piracy of beIN Sport’s channels in Saudi Arabia. beIN was repackaged as beoutQ and the operation stole the expensive sports rights that beIN had bought for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region from organisations including FIFA, Formula One and the English Premier League.

The Premier League spent most of 2018 and 2019 unsuccessfully trying to get Saudi Arabia to shut down beoutQ, while the Qatari government complained to the World Trade Organisation and started an investment arbitration case against Saudi Arabia for $1billion in lost earnings.

Following the end of the blockade in 2021, these tensions melted away, which also allowed the Saudi sovereign wealth fund PIF (Public Investment Fund) to complete its protracted purchase of Newcastle United.



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Relations between the Saudis and Qataris started to appear more warm. For example, Qatar-owned PSG were invited to play in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, while the Saudi PIF has even been in talks to acquire a minority stake in beIN Sports in recent months.

The Saudi Minister of Media, Majid Al Qasabi, is also a board member of PIF, which only increases the surreal nature of these developments as his ministry appears to have blocked a platform which is run by a company in which PIF is seeking to purchase a stake.



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Only last month, beIN signed a strategic partnership with Saudi Media Company — an advertising agency connected to the Saudi government — to be the broadcaster’s exclusive advertising partner in the Middle East.

The TOD platform has been operational in Saudi Arabia, both on smart TVs and direct to consumers, since January 7 2022. It has more viewers than even Netflix in the country.

But this week it has not been available to its millions of subscribers in the kingdom. Saudis were still able to watch their historic victory over Argentina on Tuesday because it was one of the matches made available free-to-air, while Saturday’s fixture against Poland will also be shown for free rather than on the subscription platform.

Nevertheless, Saudis are currently unable to watch a large number of World Cup games, which seems surprising in a country that called a national holiday after beating Argentina in their first match.

Remarkably, this means that Saudis are also unable to watch Argentina’s final two group games, which is particularly striking given that Lionel Messi is a paid ambassador of the Saudi Arabia state. Portugal games involving Cristiano Ronaldo also require the subscription platform. Saudis do retain the ability to watch the subscription matches via a FIFA clean feed but that is only in public settings rather than private homes.



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For World Cup organisers FIFA, it is major complication to have an official streaming partner — and one owned by the host nation — blocked by a state in Saudi Arabia which is expected to bid for the 2030 World Cup in a joint bid with Egypt and Greece. FIFA president Infantino has developed a close bond with MBS, with the pair previously meeting to discuss possible Saudi investment in a club football tournament. The pair were also pictured together at a recent boxing clash in Egypt.

FIFA was asked by The Athletic how it is mediating the conflict.

beIN Sports, for its part, has contacted the Saudi Ministry of Media, the PIF. It wants FIFA to intervene in the dispute and has also appealed to the British and US government for support in securing a resolution.

BeIN declined to comment.

The Saudi Ministry of Media, the Saudi Embassy in London and PIF have been contacted by The Athletic.



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(Photo: Getty Images)


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