The Saudi Arabia football team practice ahead of the FIFA World Cup match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Saudis Dismiss Piracy Claim as Soccer Rights' Spat Escalates

(Bloomberg) -- Saudi Arabia has strongly denied accusations it was behind a television service pirating multi-billion-dollar content, with a senior official saying that authorities have confiscated thousands of pieces of equipment being used to illegally watch premium soccer events like the World Cup.

Saud al-Qahtani, a Saudi minister and a royal court adviser, said the nation’s football association has filed a complaint to FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, detailing what he described as “transgressions against the kingdom and its leadership” by Qatar’s beIn Sports network. Al-Qahtani, in remarks to CNN, said beIn Sports didn’t have a license to operate in Saudi Arabia.

He called for an end to beIn Sports’ monopoly over the broadcasting rights for major competitions in the Middle East. “The ball is in the court of FIFA, international federations and organizers of international competitions,”’ he said in a separate emailed response to Bloomberg questions on Thursday.

A beIn Sports spokesman said the network has not “been notified about any complaint from them by any party.” European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, said Thursday that BeoutQ is based in Saudi Arabia, but didn’t offer any evidence to back its claim.

The one-year political crisis between a Saudi-led coalition and Qatar has spilled into soccer after Qatar accused its neighbor of pirating content such as World Cup games, through a channel called BeoutQ. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, severed diplomatic and transport links with Qatar over accusations of supporting terrorism, charges the gas-rich country has repeatedly denied.

Al-Qahtani, in rare public remarks to international news organizations, said Saudi authorities have confiscated 12,000 devices used for illegal streaming.

“I believe that the actual number of confiscated devices will prove much higher,” he said. Authorities will continue “to conduct inspection campaigns in coordination with all relevant bodies to prevent any attempt to broadcast any illegal content,” he said. The kingdom was monitoring “all accusations leveled against it, and will take legal action against those who promote them,” he said.

BeoutQ says it is backed by Colombian, Cuban and Middle Eastern investors. FIFA, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars selling TV rights, has already said it was weighing legal action against the channel.

On its website, BeoutQ says it is "a partnership between a Colombian company and a Cuban company, operating according to the laws of the two countries which consider its work 100 percent legal."

Many Saudis say it was easy to buy the devices in shops across the kingdom in the lead up to the World Cup, generally for as much as 400 riyals ($107), including a year-long subscription. It’s now common to see BeoutQ playing in homes, restaurants and cafes that purchased receivers. 

The channel was playing on big screens at a government-sponsored event in the Saudi capital on Wednesday showing the national team’s game against Uruguay. It was also playing on a large public screen on the side of a building on Tahlia Street, the city’s main commercial boulevard.

But al-Qahtani, who described piracy as an “international problem,” said “Saudi Arabia respects the importance of protecting intellectual rights and abiding by international conventions.”

For set-up boxes to be available “in Arab markets does not mean that Saudi Arabia or any other county is connected to it,” he said. Other countries such as Oman and Kuwait have taken similar steps and confiscated the illegal devices.

In response to Al-Qahtani’s CNN remarks, the beIn Sports spokesman said the network has been offering services in the kingdom since 2005.

“Since then, we have built a very strong subscriber base in the kingdom. In the past couple of months they have tried different types of measures to slow down our business in the kingdom.”

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