FIFA and Premier League document Saudi Arabia’s role in beIN piracy operation

Representational image.

by Tariq Panja

An investigation financed by FIFA, two of its confederations and a group of top European soccer leagues has concluded “without question” that a Saudi Arabia-backed satellite provider has played a vital role in a piracy operation that has stolen and aired hundreds of soccer matches and other sporting events whose rights were purchased by the Qatar-owned broadcaster beIN Sports.

The report, conducted by MarkMonitor, a brand protection company based in San Francisco, and released Monday, supports the conclusions of earlier investigations paid for by Qatar’s beIN Media Group, one of the world’s biggest purchasers of broadcast rights.

BeIN has contended for more than two years that the piracy operation, which broadcasts stolen content to subscribers in the Middle East and elsewhere on a rogue network named beoutQ, has operated with signals transmitted by Arabsat, a communications company based in Saudi Arabia, with at least the tacit support of powerful figures in Saudi Arabia. The organizations behind Monday’s report said they had reached the same conclusion.

“The report confirms without question that beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat,” the organizations, which also include England’s Premier League and Spain’s Liga, said in a joint statement. “The contents of the report are today being published in full on the rights holders’ websites to provide transparency about the facts of the case and to demonstrate the seriousness with which we, as global rights holders, view this issue.”

Publicly, Arabsat has denied the pirated broadcasts were being carried by its satellites. Its chief executive, Khalid Balkheyour, did not respond to an email seeking comment about whether his company carries beoutQ’s broadcast signals.

The dispute has shined a light on the limits of current rules on global piracy in the telecommunications industry, especially when governments are unable or unwilling to prevent it. But the fight also poses a serious challenge to the business interests of the governing bodies and leagues involved.

Those bodies own some of the most valuable sports television properties in the world, including matches from the Premier League, the UEFA-organized Champions League and FIFA’s quadrennial World Cup. The broadcast rights to those events are worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but soccer’s leaders have been powerless to defend the interests of the rights holders or pursue legal remedies in court.

If beIN’s owners withdraw from the market for those rights, it could have significant financial repercussions for FIFA, its confederations, the leagues and their teams.

The soccer bodies have in the past 15 months contacted at least nine law firms in Saudi Arabia to act on their behalf only to have each of them refuse outright or recuse themselves after initially agreeing to serve as counsel. Saudi Arabia is among a group of Middle Eastern nations leading a multiyear political and economic boycott of Qatar, and the beIN dispute is one of many smaller proxy battles in that larger fight.

The publication Monday of the 158-page report — which documents specific Arabsat frequencies used to broadcast beoutQ channels but also testy exchanges between the company and FIFA as recently as this summer — is the latest salvo in a largely unsuccessful battle to knock beoutQ off the air.

Qatar has filed at least two lawsuits against Saudi Arabia related to beoutQ, but sports organizations have done little more than release public statements calling for action to stop the piracy.

In a statement released during the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018, Saudi Arabia said it welcomed FIFA’s announcement that it was planning to take legal action there because it would supplement the kingdom’s own “relentless efforts” to combat beoutQ’s activities and what it described as “beIN’s illegal broadcasting within the country.” But FIFA was unable to find a Saudi lawyer willing to take the case.

While Arabsat, based in Riyadh, is jointly owned by a consortium of Arab nations, Saudi Arabia is by far its biggest investor. BeoutQ claims to be based in Cuba and Colombia, though all evidence points to its being a Saudi-run operation with the support of powerful figures in the country, including Saud al-Qahtani, a senior aide to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Al-Qahtani has promoted beoutQ on social media.

Saudi Arabia previously accused beIN of orchestrating “a smear campaign” designed to connect the kingdom with beoutQ’s pirated broadcasts.

BeIN’s top executive said he welcomed the release of Monday’s report, but he also suggested little would change until Saudi authorities took action.

“We have been monitoring closely, and nothing has fundamentally changed,” said Yousef al-Obaidly, chief executive of Qatar’s beIN Media Group.

The brazen piracy of broadcasts of soccer matches has at times soured relations between beIN and some of the sports organizations and leagues that have benefited from its considerable wealth. In the most extreme case, beIN announced this year that it would take legal action against the Asian Football Confederation after the soccer body unilaterally broke an exclusive contract with beIN — effectively repossessing rights it had sold to beIN — so it could broadcast games in Saudi Arabia, which has banned the sale of subscriptions to the Qatari network as part of the wider economic blockade of the emirate.

Elsewhere, beIN has threatened to end contracts with leagues and governing bodies that it argues have not provided support to its efforts to end beoutQ’s piracy or who have signed agreements to bring events to Saudi Arabia while the dispute continues. BeIN officials were enraged when last year, for example, Italy’s Serie A — which has a television rights agreement with beIN Sports — signed a three-match deal for its Super Cup to be played in Saudi Arabia. The first of those matches took place in Jiddah in January.

BeIN has been a loss-making enterprise since its inception, but it said the loss of access to the market in Saudi Arabia, its region’s biggest, was the reason it eliminated hundreds of jobs — representing about a fifth of its employees — in June. A rival network in the Gulf, OSN, has withdrawn from all sports broadcasting except cricket, with its officials blaming piracy as a key factor driving the decision.

BeoutQ is not currently broadcasting over satellite, but it has posted messages on social media reassuring its subscribers that the absence is temporary while it works to restore its signal. The set-top decoder units that carry its broadcast, though, continue to function over the internet. BeoutQ decoders have been found for sale across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and even the U.S. government has taken notice of its operations.

Through its internet-based application, subscribers paying $50 to $80 for an annual package can gain access to hundreds of channels from around the world, providing valuable sports and entertainment events for a fraction of the price that legitimate rights holders charge for the same content.

BeoutQ’s operation has grown increasingly sophisticated; its main channel usually features beIN’s live broadcast with a superimposed version of the pirate network’s logo, and it has also produced its own branded promotional content. There are even rate cards available offering advertising opportunities to potential sponsors.

“It’s a great business model,” beIN’s Obaidly said, “when you don’t have to pay for rights.”

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