US keeps Saudi Arabia on priority watchlist over sports IP protection ‘failure’

The United States Trade Representative office, the government organisation responsible for advising US trade policy, has kept Saudi Arabia on its priority watchlist for what it sees as a failure to address “long-standing IP concerns”.

Saudi Arabia is one of 10 nations on the US priority list, which also includes China, Indonesia and India among others, with the USTR isolating the country’s lack of action against pirate sports broadcaster beoutQ’s continued operation.

The USTR also announced that it will be conducting an ‘out-of-cycle’ review into the IP issues in Saudi Arabia as well as Malaysia. An ‘out-of-cycle’ review is a USTR tool which means that the government will increase its efforts to remedy the IP issues identified.

The ‘2020 Special 301’ report reads: “The United States continues to remain concerned about reportedly high levels of online piracy in Saudi Arabia, particularly through illicit streaming devices (ISDs), which right-holders report are widely available and generally unregulated in Saudi Arabia. The United States encourages Saudi Arabia to increase IP enforcement actions and IP awareness campaigns particularly targeted at reducing online piracy and to combat the perception spurred by beoutQ’s activity that pirating copyrighted material is permissible.

“Right-holders have expressed further concerns regarding effective civil enforcement of IP, including the ability to file civil actions, enforce judgments, and assess deterrent-level fines against infringers. Additionally, with regard to criminal enforcement of IP, right-holders remain concerned that criminal sentences and financial penalties are not consistently imposed.”

US Trade Representative Robert Lightizer said: “The two reports issued today [including the 2020 Special 301 Report] illustrate the Administration’s commitment to protecting intellectual property rights and combatting counterfeiting and piracy in online and physical markets.”

News of the Saudi inclusion on the US watchlist comes a week after Yousef al-Obaidly, chief executive of beIN Media Group, wrote to the Premier League and club chairmen, urging the blocking the proposed takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

The new US report follows the European Commission’s decision early this year to add Saudi Arabia to its bi-annual priority watch-list over its failure to protect intellectual property in areas including sports broadcasting.

The USTR added Saudi Arabia to the watchlist in 2018 and was lobbied by many of the world’s most prominent rights-holders such as Fifa, the NFL and the International Olympic Committee to keep it on the list. The USTR upgraded Saudi Arabia to the priority watchlist in 2019.

Fifa was among a wider group made up of two continental confederations and five major football leagues to co-publish a report into Arabsat’s transmission of beoutQ signals broadcasts.

The beoutQ broadcasts are no longer carried on Arabsat’s satellite platform, but persist through IPTV set-top boxes. For its part, Arabsat has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The service has ravaged the business of Qatari pay-television broadcaster beIN in its Mena heartland.

Rights-holders’ efforts to bring a legal case in Saudi Arabia have proved futile thus far, despite a host of new IP laws being introduced in the Kingdom.