Saudi football fans watch the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A football match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at a fan tent in the capital Riyadh on June 14, 2018. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Global sports bodies have threatened legal action in Saudi Arabia, with World Cup organiser Fifa and the English Premier League saying the theft of intellectual property undermines multibillion-dollar broadcasting contracts © AFP

Saudi Arabia is facing legal action over a sophisticated pirate television network that is targeting viewers in the country in the latest escalation of hostilities between the Middle Eastern kingdom and Qatar.

On Monday, beIN Corporation, the Doha-based parent of the beIN Media TV group, said it would launch an international investment arbitration case against Saudi Arabia. The case relates to beoutQ, an Arabic language sports network streaming content rightfully owned by beIN.

BeIN is seeking more than $1bn in damages, alleging it has been unlawfully driven out of Saudi Arabia, its biggest broadcast market in the region.

On the same day — in a separate but related case — Qatar also brought proceedings against Saudi Arabia at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, claiming the kingdom is in breach of international treaties on the protection of intellectual property.

The piracy-related cases, which both target the Saudi state, are the latest flashpoint in a diplomatic dispute roiling the Gulf.

In June, Saudi Arabia and three Arab allies cut diplomatic and transport links to the gas-rich neighbour, accusing Doha of financing terrorism. Doha has denied the allegations.

“Quite clearly, we are being unfairly used as a political football in a wider regional dispute,” said Sophie Jordan, general counsel for beIN Media.

“But this case has implications far beyond beIN — in beoutQ, Saudi Arabia has created a plague of piracy and unless the whole sports, entertainment and broadcast industry takes a stand, its impact will be devastating and irreversible.”

BeIN’s case against Saudi Arabia is being brought under the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation Agreement on Investment Protection. Qatar’s WTO dispute may take months, if not years, to resolve.

In public statements, Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied involvement in beoutQ, which emerged last year and has been illegally screening content for which BeIN has spent billions of dollars on exclusive rights, ranging from English Premier League football matches to Formula One Grand Prix races.

The pirate network website is geolocked — or restricted — to Saudi viewers. BeoutQ’s website says it is a partnership between Cuban and Colombian companies. Representatives for beoutQ have not been found for comment.

Saudi authorities say they confiscated more than 15,000 satellite receivers for pirating sports content in recent months, but beoutQ devices can still be found in the kingdom and other neighbouring countries.

BeIN and a number of technology companies have released technical findings suggesting that the signal for beoutQ is being transmitted by Arabsat, the Saudi satellite communications company in which the Saudi government is the largest shareholder.

Earlier this week, lawyers for Arabsat told the FT it vehemently “denies any involvement with beoutQ or in any way facilitating beoutQ’s transmissions in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else”.

Global sports bodies have also threatened legal action in Saudi Arabia, with Fifa and the English Premier League saying the theft of intellectual property undermines multibillion-dollar broadcasting contracts.

While bringing its case to the WTO, Qatar’s ministry of economy and commerce said the Saudi-led blockade was “a violation of Qatar’s trade rights”, but added that the actions of beoutQ were of “particular concern”, noting the sale of subscriptions and set-top boxes for the pirate TV network available in shops across Saudi Arabia.

Representatives for the Saudi Arabian government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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