During the opening week of the FIFA World Cup, football fans in Saudi Arabia inexplicably found that they couldn’t watch most of the football matches. This, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, wearing a Qatar scarf, was seated next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and a seat away from Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
BeIN Sports, a Qatari firm run by the Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, owns the broadcast rights for the FIFA World Cup in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
As previously reported in indianexpress.com, the matches in the region are divided up between 22 free-to-air games, while the remaining 42 broadcast on a streaming service called TOD TV that was launched earlier this year, in all 24 countries in the MENA region. As Saudi-based customers of Tod TV discovered, they were unable to access content.
So why was the broadcast blocked?
Not all matches were unavailable for viewing, a New York Times report says. This meant that viewers in Saudi Arabia missed the tournament opener and the sight of their leader sitting next to the FIFA president and the emir of Qatar.
Saudi fans flooded social media with complaints while Saudi electronics companies that carry Tod TV on their equipment have also sought answers from beIN’s Tod subsidiary, the New York Times report added.
But most individuals concerned in Saudi Arabia have been unable to explain why this happened. “Due to matters beyond our control, we are experiencing an outage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is currently impacting TOD.tv, 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, the report said.
A BBC report quoted the Saudi Sports Minister saying that Qatar had done an “amazing job” with the World Cup, and that it could help strengthen bilateral ties.
“We’re neighbours, everyone has issues and we have to overcome these issues and use such an event to showcase that people are willing to work together,” the minister told BBC.
Bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar
The incident has put focus back on the bilateral relations between the two countries. Neighbours in the Middle-East, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have historically shared cordial relations. But in 2017, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition, including Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, announced that they were severing ties with Qatar. They claimed the reason for the boycott was Qatar’s alleged “embrace of various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region”, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS), among others.
The issue was serious, with the four countries unilaterally closing off their airspaces, territorial waters and land borders to Qatar. Saudi Arabia went one step further and also suspended Qatar’s involvement in the Yemen campaign.
Back then, MENA experts had said the decision had more to do with Qatar’s foreign policy decisions, many of which were independent of its equations with its neighbours and contrary to theirs. Some experts also believed that the boycott was possibly the result of Saudi Arabia’s belief that its strategic interests were being compromised due to Qatar’s foreign policy decisions.
That diplomatic boycott remained in place for a little over two years, till Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced that they would be participating in the 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup which was scheduled to be held in Qatar. Experts viewed this as a thaw in the relations between the four countries and Qatar.
Qatari media group Al Jazeera has been a bone of contention between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as some other nations in the MENA region, who disagree with several of its editorial policies. Since its launch in 1996, there have been several times when Saudi Arabia has blocked access to Al Jazeera for its citizens, but during the diplomatic crisis in 2017, Al Jazeera was completely blocked from broadcasting in the country.
A Reuters report had said that Saudi Arabia did not give a clear explanation for its decision to ban the network except that it was one made out of “concern for the rights of its citizens and residents”.