Frustrations Simmer as Saudis Are Blocked From Watching the World Cup

DOHA, Qatar — In the stands at the World Cup, the fraternal bond between host Qatar and its neighbor Saudi Arabia has been clear. Fans have arrived to games dressed in the colors of both nations, and the countries’ rulers have made a show of publicly supporting one another.

Even so, the nations appear to be locked in a curious dispute about broadcasting that has made a majority of the World Cup’s games unavailable to viewers in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi-based customers of Tod TV, a streaming service launched in January by Qatar’s beIN Media Group, which owns rights to the tournament across the Middle East, were suddenly blocked from the platform an hour before the tournament’s opening game last Sunday. That meant they were not watching when their country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, wearing a Qatar scarf, was given a seat next to the FIFA president Gianni Infantino, one removed from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar.

The sight of Prince Mohammed being afforded such a prominent role at the World Cup would have been unthinkable only two years ago, when he led a regional boycott against Qatar, or when a yearslong effort by a Saudi-backed pirate network effectively stole billions of dollars worth of BeIN’s sports content. Since the thaw, relations had improved to such an extent that Saudi Arabia is considering buying a stake in beIN; it already has signed a $130 million marketing agreement with the Qatari company.

With that backdrop, beIN officials have been stunned to find their streaming platform suspended by Saudi Arabia’s media regulators. BeIN has lobbied FIFA, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister and even the United States and British government to find a way to get their services unlocked but have so far struck out and remain unclear why the action has been taken in a country where soccer is fervently followed by millions and that has sent thousands of soccer fans flooding across the border. Qatar’s emir even wore a Saudi Arabia scarf during Saudi Arabia’s shock victory over powerhouse Argentina Monday.

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

The only official message so far has been one from the media ministry, telling subscribers attempting to log into to their accounts that the network has been suspended for an unspecified violation of regulations.

Saudi subscribers have flooded social media with complaints about their lack of access to the site, while electronics companies that carry Tod TV on their equipment have also sought answers from beIN’s Tod subsidiary. The network has been unable to provide much clarity and is unsure why the action has been taken. Just this week prince Salman directed all state institutions to support Qatar in its efforts to host the World Cup.

“Due to matters beyond our control, we are experiencing an outage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is currently impacting, 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.

Saudi’s media ministry did not reply to an email for comment. FIFA, which has become close to Saudi Arabia, and has encouraged the Gulf kingdom to bid for the 2030 World Cup, also did not reply to a request for comment.

The Saudi Arabia Media Ministry is headed by Majid Al Qasabi, who is also a board member of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, the entity that is currently engaged in talks to buy a stake in beIN.

FIFA had joined dozens of sports federations and leagues to demand Saudi take action against the Saudi-backed pirate network, named BeOUTQ, which flourished during the blockade, which peaked in 2018, when the last World Cup was held in Russia, and pirated in its entirety.

Until the sudden suspension, Tod has grown to become the largest streaming service in Saudi Arabia, surpassing subscription numbers for popular international services like Netflix and Disney Plus.

Under its agreement with FIFA, beIN is broadcasting 22 World Cup games on free television in Saudi Arabia, including the opening game, the final and all of Saudi’s games. The remaining 42 are only available on Tod. The suspension has infuriated millions of soccer loving Saudis whose fervor has only grown after the defeat of Argentina.

The ban on the streaming site comes amid a push by Saudi Arabia to become a global sports player. The country has rapidly become one of the biggest investors in the sector, scooping up a panoply of rights and events, including the high profile purchase of Premier League soccer team Newcastle and launching LIV Golf, a series backed by billions of dollars with pretensions to usurp established competitions.

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