Saudi Arabia’s spat with regional rival Qatar spilled into this month’s soccer World Cup in Russia, as they offered differing narratives on a broadcast deal for the kingdom days before the event begins.
Rights to air the World Cup in the Middle East and North Africa are exclusively held by Qatar’s beIN Sports network, which has been banned in Saudi Arabia since it began a boycott of gas-rich Qatar a year ago.
In an interview in Zurich, Saudi sports authority chief Turki Al Alshikh accused Qatar of backtracking from a FIFA-brokered deal to let the kingdom air the opening and closing games as well as 20 other encounters for US$35 million. He said details of the agreement had been relayed by FIFA officials. But Qataris who later met with FIFA and Saudi representatives at the agency’s headquarters this month denied an agreement had been reached on the sum, according to Al Alshikh.
“Saudi Arabia has shown good faith,” he said. “The meeting was supposed to discuss technical details, not financial.”
In a statement on Tuesday, beIN said that “preliminary discussions” had failed to deliver an agreement on price or other key terms of a deal. The company said it remained open to future talks. FIFA said in a separate statement that the issue was still being discussed. “No deal is in place at the moment and FIFA continues to monitor the situation” in conjunction with its Middle East media partner beIN Sports, it said.
The Saudi official’s comments come after Qatar accused Saudi Arabia and its allies of illegally broadcasting soccer matches. The beIN Media Group earlier this year said set-top boxes being sold in the kingdom were carrying “premium live sports content stolen from beIN and other broadcasters.”
Many Saudis have used workarounds to continue to watch the channel, which has the rights to broadcast several of soccer’s biggest competitions.
BeIN said its channels are still carried by two cable TV providers in the United Arab Emirates, which is part of the coalition boycotting Qatar, and it agreed this week with the UAE companies to broadcast the World Cup matches.
A Saudi deal would have marked a rare moment of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the kingdom, along with three allies, severed diplomatic and transport links with Doha in June last year. The Saudi-led coalition accuses Qatar of backing radical groups and cozying up to Iran, charges Qatari officials have repeatedly denied.
The beIN channel is a spinoff of Al Jazeera’s media network, which the Saudi bloc wants shutdown as one of 13 conditions for ending its boycott. The Qatar-based broadcaster has riled other autocratic monarchies in the region with unflattering coverage.
Al Alshikh said he had set a deadline for salvaging the agreement but didn’t elaborate. Saudi Arabia plays hosts Russia at the World Cup’s opening game on June 14, before facing Uruguay and Egypt.