Saudi Arabia facilitated sports broadcasting piracy by blocking moves to shut it down, the World Trade Organization said in a ruling Tuesday that throws new doubts on the kingdom's takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle.
The WTO's findings is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute over the bootlegging by Saudi Arabia-based beoutQ of broadcasting rights owned by Qatar's beIN Sports.
The beIN network, which is banned from operating in Saudi Arabia, airs some of the world's biggest sports competitions across the Middle East — including the World Cup and the Premier League — thanks to broadcasting rights worth billions of dollars.
The WTO decision on Tuesday provides a further complication for the Premier League, which is having to decide whether to approve a takeover of northeast English club Newcastle by the Saudi sovereign fund. The league has spent two years trying unsuccessfully to get beoutQ shut down.
“The panel considers that Qatar has established a prima facie case that beoutQ is operated by individuals or entities subject to the criminal jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia,” the WTO said.
Champions League organizer UEFA said the piracy threatens “existence of professional sport as we know it." FIFA demanded that Saudi Arabia “takes the necessary steps in order that it conforms” with the WTO's findings.
Saudi Arabia failed to take action to stop beoutQ’s operations and protect the intellectual property of rights holders, the WTO dispute panel concluded. The panel highlighted how beIN was prevented from hiring lawyers in Saudi Arabia to take action in the courts against the piracy.
“Qatar has established that Saudi Arabia has not provided for criminal procedures and penalties to be applied to beoutQ despite the evidence establishing prima facie that beoutQ is operated by individuals or entities under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia,” the WTO said.
The Premier League was among sports competitions to lodge protests with the American government which led in April to Saudi Arabia remaining on a “Priority Watch List” as one of the “notorious markets for counterfeiting and piracy.”
It is a stumbling block to the Premier League approving the Saudi Public Investment Fund buying an 80% stake in Newcastle as part of a takeover alongside the wealthy British-based Reuben brothers and financier Amanda Staveley. They want to buy out retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley.
“We take piracy very seriously,” Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said. “We stand by what we said on the record in the past. But as you know, in relation to anything to do with takeovers, I can’t say anything about the substance or the timing.”
European football's governing body said it was clear beoutQ’s broadcasts of its games were illegal.
“BeoutQ was hosted on frequencies transmitted by Arabsat and was promoted and carried out by individuals and entities subject to Saudi Arabia’s territorial jurisdiction,” UEFA said in a statement. "Those seeking to follow beoutQ’s example should be in no doubt that UEFA will go to great lengths to protect its property and support its partners, whose investment in football helps it to remain the world’s most popular sport from grassroots to elite level.
“Piracy not only threatens that investment but also the existence of professional sport as we know it.”
Ali bin Ahmed Al Kuwari, Qatar’s minister of commerce and industry, urged the Saudis to launch “fair, timely, and transparent legal proceeding against the perpetrators in order to stop this abuse post-haste.”
Saudi Arabia responded to the report by saying it was “committed to applying its national law and procedures in full conformity with WTO rules.”
Saudi Arabia launched a boycott of Qatar in 2017 alongside the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain over accusations Doha supports extremism. The tiny, super-rich nation of Qatar denies the charge.
Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
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Rob Harris, The Associated Press