Saudi Arabia mulls investment in Qatar’s beIN media after years-long ban

After a four-year ban as well as a major pirating dispute, Saudi Arabia is reportedly pondering a stake in Qatar’s state-funded sports broadcaster, beIN.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is allegedly eying an investment in Qatar’s beIN Media Group— a broadcaster it had previously banned for years, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg.

The Public Investment Fund is among parties that have formally expressed interest in teaming up with Doha-based BeIN, according to the individuals who requested anonymity to disclose private information.

US private equity firms are also eager to invest, the sources added.

However, there is still no guarantee that early-stage discussions will result in investments in the Doha-owned broadcaster. One of the sources suggested the broadcaster may potentially look into other options, such as an initial public offering.

“BeIn Media Group is considering a number of strategic options,” the company told Bloomberg News.

Kick off in regional sports relations?

In its native market in the Middle East, state-owned BeIN, which operates across five continents, has exclusive rights to broadcast some of the largest athletic events in the world, including the UEFA Champions League football tournament.

The channel is one of the most prominent sports broadcasters globally, with investors worldwide eager to jump on its success.

However, such influence often comes with political disputes.

Shortly after a blockade was imposed on Qatar in 2017 by a number of Gulf countries and Egypt, the sports network was blocked to millions of subscribers in Saudi Arabia.

Two months later, Saudi-linked outlet beoutQ began broadcasting content stolen from beIN Sport through Riyadh-based communications satellite operator, Arabsat.

BeoutQ’s sophisticated theft of intellectual property developed when it launched set-top boxes and started selling subscription packages to air English, Italian, Spanish, and German football games.

The channel also pirated numerous international sporting events including the Super Bowl LII, the UEFA Champions League Final, the NBA Finals, multiple Formula 1 races, and all 64 matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

However, the 10-channel piracy entity only survived for two years.

In June 2020, the World Trade Organization (WTO) found that Saudi Arabia had breached its obligations under the organisation’s Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS Agreement”) by refusing to take legal action against the Riyadh-linked pirate broadcaster “beoutQ”.

The WTO also found the Saudi government guilty of engaging “in the promotion of public gatherings with screenings of beoutQ’s unauthorised broadcasts, including the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The dispute lasted for years and even continued after the blockade was officially lifted in January 2021. However, in October of that year, it was reported that Qatar and Saudi officials reached an agreement to lift the ban on beIN Sports in the kingdom.

The latest development comes amid an ongoing modernisation drive by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Saudi Arabia who has opened up the kingdom to more western-style entertainment, notably professional sports.

The kingdom is preparing to invest billions of dollars to become a centre for e-sports and has already hosted important events in boxing, golf, and F1 racing.

However, rights groups and advocates worldwide have pointed to this drive as a Saudi attempt to divert attention away from its rights records, dubbing it “sportswashing”.

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