LONDON — One of the world’s biggest buyers of sports rights has a problem: It’s Qatari.
The broadcaster, beIN Sports, has poured billions of dollars into securing rights to major events, notably in soccer, in recent years. But over the last three months, it has found itself at the center of the bitter diplomatic crisis that has seen a quartet of Arabic-speaking countries, led by Saudi Arabia, sever relations with Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate that will host the 2022 World Cup.
For beIN, which is financed by the Qatari government, the fallout is starting to affect business across the Middle East and Africa, where it has millions of sports-loving subscribers. Viewers in the United Arab Emirates had their signals blocked for six weeks before the authorities there recently reinstated the channel. BeIN reporters have been harassed at stadiums, or removed from them to face stern questioning by the police. And in Saudi Arabia, vendors selling beIN Sports have been shut down, and marketing activities promoting the company are no longer allowed.
“There are so many different levels to this issue,” Sophie Jordan, the general counsel of the broadcaster’s parent company, beIN Media Group, said on Thursday. “This is unprecedented.”
On the ground, beIN staff members (the network has about 5,000 employees worldwide and operates in 43 countries, including the United States) have reported being prevented from doing their jobs. Production crews have been barred from entering countries supporting the boycott — meaning beIN has been unable to fulfill its role as a so-called global host broadcaster for the Asian confederation games in the Middle East — and reporters have been shunned by players and coaches from rival nations.
More recently, the obstacles have become so contentious that a sports rights agency, Lagardère Sports, was forced to step in to ensure crucial World Cup qualification games and Asian Champions League matches could be broadcast in countries in which beIN owns their rights.
“Every single obstacle to prevent the commercialization of beIN channels has been put in place by the Saudi authorities,” Jordan said.
The sports dispute is collateral damage in a broader political feud. In June, a group of Qatar’s Arab rivals — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain — severed all ties with Qatar, accusing its rulers of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism. Qatar denies the accusations, but its neighbors issued a list of demands that Qatar, one of the world’s largest suppliers of natural gas, must accede to before relations can be normalized. Among these was the closure of the pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera, which, like beIN Sports, is bankrolled by Qatar’s government.
“The demands are so big that it’s politically impossible for Qatar to accept them,” said Jane Kinninmont, the deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the international-affairs think tank Chatham House.
But live sporting events, especially soccer matches, form the lifeline of beIN’s business, and they are where some expensive confrontations are taking place. As the sole rights owner for the final round of Asian World Cup qualifiers in the Middle East, the network — with production help from Lagardère — last Tuesday broadcast the biggest soccer game in recent Saudi Arabian history: a 1-0 win over Japan that guaranteed the Saudis a place at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
BeIN’s reporter at the game, an Omani national, was removed from the venue hosting it, King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, and questioned by the authorities before being allowed into the stadium minutes before the match kicked off, according to the broadcaster. The reporter, Hasan al-Hashimi, also reported having had some of his equipment taken, while at other venues, players and coaches have boycotted interviews with the channel, and reporters have been told to remove cubes bearing the beIN logo from their microphones.
“The accumulation of all the incidents when there is a Saudi, U.A.E. or Egyptian team playing is starting to have a significant impact,” beIN’s Jordan said. “I have been working in sports for 20 years and have never seen anything like this.”
The Saudi soccer federation did not reply to a request for a comment.
BeIN has grown to become a major plank of Qatar’s efforts to use sports to brand itself as a global and regional power, and the company has committed billions of dollars to buy rights to the most popular soccer competitions, including the UEFA Champions League, Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League. That buying spree came after Qatar in 2010 was named as the host of the sport’s biggest event, the World Cup.
In its successful pitch for that tournament, Qatari officials had promoted regional unity. The day before FIFA’s final vote, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the wife of the Qatari emir at the time, said just that. Dressed from head to toe in maroon, Qatar’s national color, Sheikha Mozah said a World Cup in Qatar would bring the entire Middle East together, “from Doha to Damascus.”
Current developments suggest the opposite. A land, air and sea blockade by Qatar’s neighbors has affected the country’s $ 200 billion pre-World Cup infrastructure program.
“No doubt that the blockade has caused an inconvenience,” Hassan al-Thawadi, head of the 2022 World Cup organizing committee, said in an interview recently broadcast by Al Jazeera. He said Qatar could no longer work with some companies that had been contracted as suppliers or service providers for World Cup projects. “We have very quickly moved on to Plan B, found alternative sources of supply — alternative routes of supply as well,” he said.
For beIN, the difficulties have been felt on a weekly basis. A beIN reporter was forced to remove the company’s logos from his microphone at the first leg of a two-game Asian Champions League series between the U.A.E.’s Al Ain and Al-Hilal from Saudi Arabia, and it was unclear if the same would occur at the return match on Monday. The Saudi and U.A.E. soccer federations did not respond to emails requesting comment on the dispute.
BeIN is the sole authorized Middle East broadcaster for that game, part of a four-year agreement worth roughly $ 100 million. Yet since the political dispute began, a pirated version of the channel has been streamed illegally in Saudi Arabia. The bootleg operation broadcasts as Be-outQ, a play on the Qatari channel’s name. BeIN is pursuing legal action, Jordan said.
England’s Premier League and UEFA, the Champions League organizer, are among the partners that have lent support to beIN.
“We have said many times that the protection of our copyright, and the investment made by our broadcast partners, is critically important to the Premier League and the future health of English football,” said Richard Molnar, the Premier League’s director of broadcasting. But it is unclear what influence the leagues can bring to bear.
In Africa, where beIN has a contract of at least eight years for the MENA Region with the regional governing body for soccer, the Confederation of African Football, the network’s staff members have faced severe obstacles in nations sympathetic to the boycott of Qatar. On June 20, as Morocco’s Wydad Athletic Club prepared to play Al Ahly from Egypt, Al Ahly’s coach attempted to remove beIN’s microphone from an array at a pregame news conference, saying angrily: “No, I’m not going to talk to beIN sports. We don’t deal with beIN sports. Take beIN sports mike from here.”
BeIN’s complaints prompted the African confederation to issue a directive to its members in June, urging teams and federations to set aside their differences with beIN and allow “reason to prevail.” But two months later, the problems persist.
“What we are asking from the football authorities are significant measures that are dissuasive,” Jordan said. “They haven’t done much, and the proof of that is the incidents are growing.”
A spokesman for the African confederation did not respond to a request for comment.
Complicating matters, Asian soccer’s governing body, the Asian Football Confederation, is led by Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family of Bahrain, which is among the countries backing the blockade. Sheikh Salman has said he has recused himself from any conversations or decisions involving the dispute, and the Asian confederation has told beIN that the issue will be handled by its disciplinary committee, according to three people familiar with the matter, but has otherwise not taken a public position.
In a statement, a senior vice president for the Asian confederation, Praful Patel, said: “Integrity stretches beyond the action on the field to also protecting the rights of our broadcast and commercial partners, and enforcing the A.F.C. rules and regulations which govern matches played under its jurisdiction. I have been asked by the president to adjudicate in these matters which affect the West Asia Zone during the present challenging times and I will carry out those duties by ensuring this is a most comprehensive investigation.”
When the Asian confederation’s contract with beIN ends, the network has the right to match any rival bid and renew it. BeIN has no plans to discontinue its aggressive push to accumulate sports rights in the region, Jordan said.