Friday, June 9Welcome

beIN Sports, its success and the uneasy truce with Saudi Arabia

Say “beIN Sports” to most British football fans and they would probably think of “senior football anchor” (that is his Twitter bio, by the way, not rhyming slang) Richard Keys first, followed a nanosecond later by his TV other half and golf partner, Andy Gray.

For those not from the UK, Keys and Gray were Sky Sports’ top presenter/pundit duo for Premier League games between 1992 and 2011, when they were unceremoniously dumped after video footage emerged of them bantering about women like sniggering schoolboys.

Two years later, beIN Sports hired them to recreate their magic and they remain the Doha-based broadcaster’s most famous full-time employees, although they have subsequently been joined on set by a growing army of ex-pros, including global superstars such as Gabriel Batistuta, Kaka, Alessandro Del Piero and Nicky Summerbee.

Newcastle United fans might also think of beIN Sports when they remember the year-long hold-up of their club’s takeover by Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Thankfully, that impasse was cleared when the Premier League received legal assurances from PIF that it was entirely separate from the Saudi government, despite its chairman being Saudi’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, its board being full of government ministers and its investment strategy being closely aligned to government policy.

Complete coincidences, apparently, in much the same way that the end of a three-and-a-half-year attempt to bankrupt beIN Sports by a highly sophisticated, Saudi-based digital piracy operation was another strange concurrence coming, as it did, days before the Premier League’s PIF breakthrough.

The fact that the Premier League had spent much of those three and a half years doing everything in its power to stop beoutQ, as the piracy operation was known, from stealing the content that beIN had paid good money for was, we were assured, nothing to do with the Newcastle United hold-up, and the fact the takeover was only approved once the stealing stopped was just one of those things, move along, we’re all friends now et cetera et cetera.

But if these two unrelated tales are the only bits of info you have on beIN, you are missing a trick.

In fact, you are probably missing a story that explains why this World Cup is in Qatar and what Qatar wants from its $200billion-plus investment in the tournament.

But to explain that, we have to go backwards.

Qatar, a small peninsula in the Persian Gulf, gained independence in 1971. Before that, it had been a British protectorate since 1916, having been under Turkish rule for half a century before that and Saudi sovereignty for a century before that.

For most of its history, then, Qatar was a dusty outpost in somebody else’s empire, and the imperial power of the day was happy to let the House of Thani run the place. Its economy was based on fishing and pearl hunting, the latter being a dangerous business that became uneconomic when Japan introduced cultured pearls to the global market.

That plunged Qatar into desperate poverty for a generation. But then something truly transformational happened: the Qataris discovered they were standing on the world’s third-largest reserves of gas and oil. Qatar’s citizens would never be poor again.

But with that wealth came vulnerability.

Saudi Arabia, with whom it shares its only land border, did not give much thought to Qatar when it was poor and did as it was told. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates, which Qatar was once meant to join, and the big power to the north, Iran, with whom it shares access to the giant gas fields under the Persian Gulf.

But asset-rich and newly assertive Qatar? Well, that’s an entirely different proposition.

And just how different became clear in 1995, when Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized control of Qatar in a bloodless coup while his father Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani was in Switzerland.

Within a year, the new emir would signal his intention for Qatar to set its own foreign policy, resist a counter-coup funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and make Qatar’s first big investment in a globally significant asset all of its own: Al Jazeera.

Having started as a satellite-based news channel in Arabic, Al Jazeera is now one of the world’s largest news providers, with channels in multiple languages. In 2004, it branched out into sport, before adding documentaries and children’s programming.

If you want to shape the news, what better way can there be than owning it?

If you want people around the world to know who you are, get into their living rooms and tell them.

And in 2012, Al Jazeera Sports became beIN Sports.

By this stage, Sheikh Hamad had already starred in the most iconic moment of his quest to make Qatar relevant when he led the celebrations that followed FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to his country — a decision that triggered a $100m (£81.3m) “success” bonus payment from Al Jazeera Sports to FIFA for the regional broadcast rights to the tournament.


Sheikh Hamad with Sepp Blatter when Qatar was controversially awarded the World Cup (Photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP via Getty Images)

So, Qatar had its mega-event and it had the biggest media operation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to televise that event across 24 countries from Morocco to Oman. What could possibly go wrong?

Remember the bit about Qatar once being a Saudi vassal? The bit about Sheikh Hamad deciding to ditch the unwritten rule that said what is good for Saudi Arabia is good for Qatar, too?

Well, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Qatar’s Gulf Cooperation Council allies had not forgotten.

In June 2017, a Saudi-led coalition issued 13 demands to Qatar, one of which was closing Al Jazeera. And while this one was not expressly stated, Qatar’s neighbours also wanted a slice of the World Cup action.

Qatar, now run by Sheikh Hamad’s son Sheikh Tamim, rejected the demands and told the coalition to do its worst: so it did. Borders were sealed, air space denied and diplomatic ties cut. This was war by any other means and that included digital piracy.

Within weeks of the blockade starting, beIN realised that something called beoutQ, operating out of Riyadh, was stealing its satellite feed and pumping it out via rebadged set-top boxes that had been seized by the Saudi authorities. Before long, beoutQ was out and proud as a rival broadcaster in MENA’s largest market but with a product that was entirely stolen.

“The only way I can describe is if you had done all the research for a story and written it, but then found it all over the internet with somebody else’s byline on it,” says Duncan Walkinshaw, beIN’s director of programs.

“They had just stolen our work and it was horrible and, yes, it felt personal.”

Walkinshaw, another Sky Sports veteran, is talking as he shows The Athletic around the Doha headquarters of what he calls “the best-kept secret in global sports broadcasting”.

BeIN shares a huge site with Al Jazeera and Qatar Television, the state-owned public service broadcaster. There is a huge gatehouse, guarded by a man with a machine gun and “hedgehogs” — the large, metal shapes designed to stop tanks. These arrived soon after the blockade started as Qatar was convinced Saudi Arabia was set to invade. Its tanks did not roll over the border but the traps have remained. Just in case.

Walkinshaw looks and sounds like a man who has seen it all before.

“We’re just foot soldiers — we do the job, have a cup of tea and go on to the next one,” he explains when asked if he and his team ever have a chance to celebrate what they have built. And it is worth celebrating.

BeIN Sports, whose chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi also runs Paris Saint-Germain in his spare time, has the largest portfolio of broadcast rights in the world and transmits pictures of almost every major sporting event you can think of across MENA and France, with growing operations in New Zealand, Turkey, Singapore and the United States.

Walkinshaw presides over an operation that pumps out 850 hours of content a day, most of it live, across 32 channels, in four languages: Arabic, English, French and Spanish. There are nine studios on the beIN site, all of them huge and state of the art, and a cosmopolitan staff of 500.

And the 2022 World Cup is as much its moment as Qatar’s — the two go hand in hand. According to figures released after the opening ceremony and first round of games, beIN’s cumulative viewership in the MENA region alone had topped one billion, which means there had been more than one billion individual viewings of its World Cup content that lasted more than one minute.

It might sound like a low bar but that is the industry standard and there is not a broadcaster on the planet who would not plaster that number all over their building if they achieved it. In terms of individual viewers, more than 111 million people watched beIN’s coverage of the opening ceremony alone — 111 million more than saw it on the BBC’s terrestrial coverage and a figure that represents almost a third of the adult population across MENA.

But this so nearly did not happen for beIN or Qatar. Not like this, anyway.

Until Saudi Arabia finally admitted defeat in trying to bring Qatar to heel — a multi-pronged attack that included an attempt to set up a bona fide Saudi alternative to beIN Sports — the building Walkinshaw was so proudly showing us around was hurting.

When beoutQ stole its Saudi business, beIN lost more than 35 per cent of its revenue, a crisis that saw the company shed hundreds of staff in two waves of redundancies. Some of them have returned but not all and you can see that it still upsets Walkinshaw.

“I’m at peace with it now,” he says, not entirely convincingly.

But he then adds something that sounds like he really means it: “We have proven they can’t beat us, you cannot just steal this and recreate it somewhere else.”

The “they” is Saudi Arabia, of course.

The same Saudi Arabia that sent its aforementioned crown prince, the man more commonly known as MBS, to the opening ceremony, where he sat in the same row of seats as Sheikh Tamim and Sheikh Hamad, who is now known as the “Father Emir”, the man who first took Qatar away from Saudi control in 1995 and resisted a Saudi attempt to unseat him only a year later.

The same Saudi Arabia that really kickstarted this World Cup with that glorious victory over Argentina, while Sheikh Tamim wore a Saudi Arabia scarf draped around his neck by his Arab brother MBS.


Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani with a Saudi flag for the match against Argentina (Photo: Fareed Kotb/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The same Saudi Arabia that is currently in talks way above Walkinshaw’s pay grade about buying a stake in beIN, among other cross-border joint ventures.

And here’s the real kicker — the same Saudi Arabia that on the night of the opening ceremony was the origin of what is known as a distributed denial of service attack, a coordinated effort to crash a company’s servers by bombarding them with requests.

It is a story that neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia wants to discuss at the moment because it runs counter to the agreed narrative that this World Cup is a celebration of Arab cooperation and a testament to what the Gulf can achieve when it sets its heart on something.

So what on earth is going on?

Why is beIN’s new streaming service, TOD, still mysteriously not working in Saudi Arabia?

“Due to matters beyond our control, we are experiencing an outage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is currently impacting, the official streaming partner of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” is the email TOD has sent to its Saudi subscribers, while there has been no official comment from beIN about the matter.

The Saudi authorities have been equally silent but Saudi football fans trying to stream World Cup games have been met with this error message: “Sorry, the requested page is violating the regulations of the ministry of media.”

It could be a hard-nosed business tactic to drive down the price of a stake in beIN.

Maybe it is Saudi’s reaction to reports that beIN is also weighing up offers of investment from the US, partnerships that might help beIN really unlock the potential of its 51 per cent stake in American film and television production company Miramax.

Or perhaps it is what these family squabbles in the Gulf are always about: control, namely Saudi control.

BeIN’s success is a threat to that control, just as Qatar Airways’ success, Qatar’s clever bet on liquified natural gas in the 1990s and Qatar’s winning of the right to stage the first World Cup in an Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim country are all sources of frustration to the House of Saud.

Do not be fooled — Qatari-Saudi relations are not entirely becalmed and beIN could easily become besieged again.

“It is a complicated region,” admits Walkinshaw. “But it is also fascinating. And if you’re interested in sports broadcasting, why wouldn’t you want to work somewhere fascinating?”

(Top photo: Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

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