Frustrations Simmer as Saudis Are Blocked From Watching the World Cup

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DOHA, Qatar — In the stands at the World Cup, the fraternal bond between host Qatar and its neighbor Saudi Arabia has been clear. Fans have arrived to games dressed in the colors of both nations, and the countries’ rulers have made a show of publicly supporting one another.

Even so, the nations appear to be locked in a curious dispute about broadcasting that has made a majority of the World Cup’s games unavailable to viewers in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi-based customers of Tod TV, a streaming service launched in January by Qatar’s beIN Media Group, which owns rights to the tournament across the Middle East, were suddenly blocked from the platform an hour before the tournament’s opening game last Sunday. That meant they were not watching when their country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, wearing a Qatar scarf, was given a seat next to the FIFA president Gianni Infantino, one removed from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar.

The sight of Prince Mohammed being afforded such a prominent role at the World Cup would have been unthinkable only two years ago, when he led a regional boycott against Qatar, or when a yearslong effort by a Saudi-backed pirate network effectively stole billions of dollars worth of beIN’s sports content. Since the thaw, relations had improved to such an extent that Saudi Arabia is considering buying a stake in beIN; it already has signed a $130 million marketing agreement with the Qatari company.

With that backdrop, beIN officials have been stunned to find their streaming platform suspended by Saudi Arabia’s media regulators. BeIN has lobbied FIFA, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister and even the United States and British government to find a way to get their services unlocked but have so far struck out and remain unclear why the action has been taken in a country where soccer is fervently followed by millions and that has sent thousands of soccer fans flooding across the border. Qatar’s emir even wore a Saudi Arabia scarf during Saudi Arabia’s shock victory over powerhouse Argentina Monday.

The only official message so far has been one from the media ministry, telling subscribers attempting to log into their accounts that the network has been suspended for an unspecified violation of regulations.

Saudi subscribers have flooded social media with complaints about their lack of access to the site, while electronics companies that carry Tod TV on their equipment have also sought answers from beIN’s Tod subsidiary. The network has been unable to provide much clarity and is unsure why the action has been taken. Just this week Prince Mohammed directed all state institutions to support Qatar in its efforts to host the World Cup.

“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. Additional information will be provided as soon as it is available,” Tod wrote to its partners.

Saudi Arabia’s media ministry did not reply to an email for comment. FIFA, which has become close to Saudi Arabia, and has encouraged the Gulf kingdom to bid for the 2030 World Cup, also did not reply to a request for comment.

The Saudi Arabia Media Ministry is headed by Majid Al Qasabi, who is also a board member of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, the entity that is currently engaged in talks to buy a stake in beIN.

FIFA had joined dozens of sports federations and leagues to demand Saudi Arabia take action against the Saudi-backed pirate network, named BeOUTQ, which flourished during the blockade, which peaked in 2018, when the last World Cup was held in Russia, and pirated in its entirety.

Until the sudden suspension, Tod has grown to become the largest streaming service in Saudi Arabia, surpassing subscription numbers for popular international services like Netflix and Disney Plus.

Under its agreement with FIFA, beIN is broadcasting 22 World Cup games on free television in Saudi Arabia, including the opening game, the final and all of Saudi Arabia’s games. The remaining 42 are only available on Tod. The suspension has infuriated millions of soccer loving Saudis whose fervor has only grown after the defeat of Argentina.

The ban on the streaming site comes amid a push by Saudi Arabia to become a global sports player. The country has rapidly become one of the biggest investors in the sector, scooping up a panoply of rights and events, including the high profile purchase of Premier League soccer team Newcastle and launching LIV Golf, a series backed by billions of dollars with pretensions to usurp established competitions.