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Qatar blockade ends: BeIN Sports unofficially returns to Saudi Arabia

Riyadh cafes broadcast banned Doha-based broadcaster, as Qatar expected to drop $1bn piracy lawsuit against Riyadh
A woman watches beIN Sports from her home in Riyadh in January 2020, months before a Saudi ban on the broadcaster (AFP/File photo)

Qatar-owned beIN Sports was broadcast in Saudi Arabia for the first time since the two countries restored diplomatic and economic ties earlier this month, following a three and a half year blockade. 

While a beIN spokesperson told Reuters that the website is still blocked in the kingdom, several cafes and restaurants in the capital Riyadh used satellite dishes to air the English Premier League (EPL) on Monday, according to a witness.

Saudi Arabia announced a total ban on beIN Sports in July 2020, following a bitter row over intellectual property and piracy. 

Riyadh, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, severed diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Qatar in 2017 over claims that Doha supported terrorism, a charge the country has long denied.

Shortly after the blockade commenced, a pirate network called beoutQ was launched on the Riyadh-based Arabsat satellite operator, which allowed millions of people to illegally watch live sporting events, such as the English Premier League, for which beIN held the exclusive rights to air in the Middle East. 

Since then, beIN Sports has filed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia seeking $1bn in damages, in what is believed to be the biggest case of sports piracy ever. 

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A damning report by the World Trade Organisation published in June 2020 found that senior Saudi officials promoted beoutQ.

The ruling made reference to several tweets publicising the pirate network, including from Saud al-Qahtani, who served as a close aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before being implicated in the 2018 murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

A source familiar with the matter told Reuters that beIN would withdraw the lawsuit once the broadcaster is allowed back in the kingdom as part of a wider political reconciliation between the two countries. 

Despite the resumption of broadcasting in some Saudi-based establishments, it remains unclear whether the ban has been officially lifted. 

BeIN Media Group said nothing had “materially changed” at this stage.

“Our website is still fully blocked in Saudi Arabia and we have received no official communication from the Saudi authorities to suggest that our licence has been reinstated,” a spokesperson told Reuters. 

“However, like everyone, we are hopeful of positive moves by Saudi to allow beIN operations back in the country after 3.5 years. We await to see.”

The Saudi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the policy. 

Fans of English football club Newcastle United have keenly followed developments of Saudi-Qatar rapprochement, after beIN sports piracy played a major role in the failure of a Saudi takeover of their team.