BeIN hits out at 'nonsensical' termination of Saudi licence as hostilities renewed
By Simon Ward
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and BeIN Sports has ramped up after the country permanently cancelled the international pay-television broadcaster’s licence to operate there.
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Competition has also fined the Qatar-based business 10 million riyals ($2.67 million) on the back of an investigation that concluded it had “abused its dominant position through several monopolistic practices.”
BeIN, which has been barred from broadcasting in Saudi Arabia since mid-2017, has latterly been at loggerheads with the kingdom over the harbouring of pirate channel beoutQ, and described Tuesday’s ruling as being based on “sham legal proceedings” and “nonsensical on every single level.”
The action comes against the background of a proposed £300 million ($377 million) takeover deal for English Premier League soccer club Newcastle United largely financed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
The league has faced calls, from BeIN amongst others, to block the takeover because of Saudi piracy, and, following a recent significant ruling from the World Trade Organisation, the country had launched a crackdown on websites illegally streaming sports events, in what was widely seen as an attempt to help get the Newcastle deal over the line.
BeIN holds media rights to the Premier League across the Middle East, and the competition is one of the properties beoutQ has been pirating.
In excluding BeIN from Saudi Arabia, the GAC has cited the bundling of channels and the requirement for subscribers to renew a whole year in advance to be able to watch the 2016 Uefa European Championships.
In a statement on Tuesday, the GAC said: “This has been classified as a clear per se violation of the competition law and its implementing regulations. Consequently, the GAC board of directors took the necessary measures to stop such practices and eliminate the monopolistic violation that BeIN Sports has committed.”
It added that the fine was the maximum permitted under the law because of “high damages” caused by BeIN.
In addition to permanently terminating the broadcaster’s licence in Saudi Arabia, the GAC has ruled that all financial gains from the violation be returned and that BeIN is liable for any fees associated with the case.
Responding to the action, BeIN Media Group said: “This decision was arrived at through sham legal proceedings that repeatedly violated BeIN’s due process rights at every turn and the decision itself is not only contrary to international law but also the most basic principles of competition law.
“The decision is nonsensical on every single level, banning BeIN for packaging its rights in the standard way that sports and entertainment broadcasters all around the world do, and indeed as other broadcasters active in the Saudi market also do. Moreover, the very idea that permanently banning a leading competitor from a market could in any way promote competition is plainly absurd.”
“We would also question - as we have for 3 years - how Saudi citizens can watch Premier League matches legally in Saudi Arabia with this ‘permanent’ ban on the Premier League’s licensed broadcaster. Or indeed how Saudi citizens can legally watch most major international sport, and how this fits into Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision.”
The Saudi Arabian Authority for Intellectual Property’s pledge to eliminate piracy and shut down 231 illicit platforms came after a WTO report deemed the country’s government responsible for piracy of broadcasts carried out by beoutQ.
In addition, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation wrote to major sports bodies acknowledging it has a “responsibility” to help fight broadcasting piracy and that it “understands the need to protect and respect intellectual property rights.”
Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga, Germany’s Bundesliga, the International Olympic Committee, North America's major leagues and tennis’ ATP and WTA have led the charges against the pirate network.
However, the WTO found the Saudi government had ignored take-down notices from such organisations, rejected the opportunity to take criminal action against beoutQ and blocked civil copyright infringement cases by putting pressure on nine Saudi law firms not to take up civil action sought by the Premier League and others, and that the piracy had continued despite complaints from the UK and US governments and the European Union.
In its statement on Tuesday, BeIN said that beoutQ had “bundled rights and removed competition for nearly three years; yet the only action the Saudi authorities have taken is to deliberately block Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League and others from taking legal action nine times – in complete breach of WTO rules. Saudi Arabia’s relentless failure to pay any heed to the rule of law or international norms is only harming sports fans in Saudi, and sports organisations all around the world.”
The dispute of the last few years has played out against the backdrop of a bitter political and economic dispute between Qatar and other Middle East nations, particular Saudi Arabia, with the small Gulf state having repeatedly and vehemently refuted allegations that it supports terrorism in the region.
The latest Saudi action threatens to complicate the proposed Newcastle takeover presently being reviewed by the Premier League.
Current owner Mike Ashley has agreed to sell the club to the group fronted by British financier Amanda Staveley and 80 per cent financed by the PIF.
The deal is in its final stages as it only requires approval from the league under its owners and directors test albeit that is taking considerably longer than normal.