Saudi competition body permanently cancels beIN licence, issues $2.7m fine

Saudi Arabian competition authorities have permanently cancelled the licence of Qatar-based pay-television broadcaster beIN Sports and issued a fine of SAR10m (€2.34m/$2.67m) for what they claim are “monopolistic practices”.

The broadcaster has been banned from broadcasting in Saudi Arabia since the middle of 2017 amidst a diplomatic standoff between Riyadh and Doha, and Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Competition (GAC) today (Tuesday) ruled to cancel its licence.

GAC said that it had found that beIN had abused its “dominant position through several monopolistic practices with respect to potential subscribers to beIN’s exclusive sports broadcast bundle for the 2016 Uefa European Championships matches”.

In response, beIN has claimed that the decision was arrived at through “sham legal proceedings” and described the notion that the permanent banning of a major competitor from a market could promote competition as “plainly absurd”.

The GAC’s move comes just weeks after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled that Saudi Arabia had actively promoted and supported pirate broadcaster beoutQ, which launched shortly after the Saudi-led economic blockade of Qatar which began in June 2017.

BeoutQ has challenged the dominance of beIN, which had established itself as the dominant pay-television operator in the Middle East and North Africa over the last decade. Its sports programming has been reproduced virtually in its entirety on the beoutQ platform, although the beoutQ broadcasts are no longer carried on Arabsat’s satellite platform but persist through IPTV set-top boxes. Arabsat has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and Saudi Arabia has always denied being behind beoutQ.

The GAC ruling also comes as the Premier League continues to examine the proposed £300m (€330m/$376m) takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

In response to today’s announcement from the Saudi competition authorities, beIN said: “This decision was arrived at through sham legal proceedings that repeatedly violated beIN’s due process rights at every turn and the decision itself is not only contrary to international law but also the most basic principles of competition law.

“The decision is nonsensical on every single level, banning beIN for packaging its rights in the standard way that sports and entertainment broadcasters all around the world do, and indeed as other broadcasters active in the Saudi market also do.

“Moreover, the very idea that permanently banning a leading competitor from a market could in any way promote competition is plainly absurd.”

The Doha-based broadcaster also questioned “how Saudi citizens can watch Premier League matches legally in Saudi Arabia with this ‘permanent’ ban on the Premier League’s licensed broadcaster”.

The statement concluded: “ We also note that Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored pirate channel, beoutQ, bundled rights and removed competition for nearly three years; yet the only action the Saudi authorities have taken is to deliberately block Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League and others from taking legal action nine times – in complete breach of WTO rules.

“Saudi Arabia’s relentless failure to pay any heed to the rule of law or international norms is only harming sports fans in Saudi, and sports organisations all around the world.”

The Riyadh-based Saudi PIF is looking to secure an 80-per-cent stake in Newcastle as part of a consortium including Dubai-based financier Amanda Staveley and the billionaire Reuben brothers, David and Simon.

Earlier this year, Yousef al-Obaidly, the beIN Media Group chief executive, wrote to Premier League chief executive Masters and the chairmen of the respective clubs, urging the league to consider blocking the proposed takeover. The broadcaster’s letter to Premier League chairmen informed them of Saudi Arabia’s “theft of clubs’ intellectual property and commercial rights for nearly three years”.

BeIN Sports holds rights to the Premier League in the Middle East and North Africa region as part of a three-year deal covering the 2019-20 to 2021-22 seasons.

Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, Masters said on June 30 that he would like the Premier League review of the takeover to “conclude shortly”.