DOHA, Qatar — What do you do when your multibillion dollar sports network has been stolen?
Executives at Qatar’s beIN Sports pondered that question last week as they stared at a bank of screens inside their sprawling headquarters here. On the night of May 2, the network’s main channel, which functions as the ESPN of the Middle East, televised the deciding game of the Champions League semifinal between A.S. Roma and Liverpool.
They watched the beIN Sports feed as Liverpool scored to take an early lead. Then they watched the same play 10 seconds later on live coverage from beoutQ, a bootlegging operation seemingly based in Saudi Arabia and whose roots lie in the bitter political dispute between Qatar and a coalition of countries led by its largest neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
That night, like every night for the past few months, 10 beoutQ channels were live, almost all of them screening the ostensibly exclusive and very expensive content of beIN, which owns some of the most valuable sports rights in France, Spain and Turkey.
The coalition countries have subjected Qatar to a punishing blockade over the past year. Now, one month before the start of the World Cup, the world’s most-watched sporting event and beIN’s signature property, the audacious piracy operation is positioned to illicitly deliver the tournament’s 64 games to much of the Middle East. Qatar, despite abundant resources, has been powerless to stop it.
Decoder boxes embossed with the beoutQ logo have for months been available across Saudi Arabia and are now for sale in other Arab-speaking countries. A one-year subscription costs $100. A Bangladeshi worker reached by phone at Sharif Electronics in Jeddah this week said his shop has been selling the boxes for three months. “Many people buy them,” he said.
As the Champions League semifinal unfolded last week, Tom Keaveny, beIN’s managing director for the Middle East who has worked in television for three decades, gathered with a half-dozen beIN engineers in a small room known as “the lab” with a mandate: Disrupt beoutQ.
So far they have not been successful.
Keaveny said beoutQ’s operation “takes industrial scale knowledge and ability and multimillion dollar funding.”
“This isn’t someone in their bedroom,” he said.
BeoutQ’s website claims its backers are a Colombian and Cuban consortium. Officials at beIN said they had spent more than $200,000 investigating the bootlegging and traced the beoutQ signal to the Riyadh-based satellite provider Arabsat. Saudi Arabia is the company’s largest investor.
Government officials in Saudi Arabia and its embassy did not respond to messages seeking comment.
For more than a decade, Qatar, a desert-state smaller than Connecticut that controls much of the world’s liquefied natural gas supply, has used sports to raise its profile. It will play host to the World Cup in 2022. The country’s ruling family controls the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team, one of the most prominent in Europe.
BeIN has committed several billion dollars to secure exclusive rights to the biggest sports events, often paying far more than market value to ensure supremacy in the Arab world and beyond. The network has become a national emblem for the emirate, making the piracy of its broadcasts especially humiliating.
“The name beoutQ is totally designed to intimidate,” said Mohammad Al-Subaie, executive director of commercial affairs for the beIN Media Group. “Being a Qatari, I really feel angry about it.”
The dispute between Qatar and its neighbors has touched every aspect of life. Qatar Airways flights must avoid neighboring airspace, lengthening flight times. Families with relatives in coalition countries have to see them in another location. Some 12,000 Qatari camels grazing on Saudi land were expelled. Giant images of Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, have been plastered on scores of buildings in response to the blockade to stoke nationalist sentiment.
“It hasn’t been an edifying conflict,” said David B. Roberts, a Gulf expert at King’s College in London. “Reports in the Saudi media that they will try to turn Qatar into an island by digging a canal along the Qatar-Saudi border and use the area to store nuclear waste sound childish.”
It didn’t take long for beIN to conclude that the rogue channel was likely linked to Saudi Arabia.
Shortly after the dispute began, Saudi Arabia banned the sale of beIN broadcast boxes and prohibited existing customers from paying their subscriptions to the channel. Soon, prominent Saudis, including an adviser to the royal court, began promoting the beoutQ website on social media. Then beoutQ launched in October with 10 high-definition channels. Its owners geo-locked it so only internet users in Saudi Arabia had access.
The website featured all major beIN content, including soccer from around the world, N.B.A. games and marquee tennis tournaments. BeoutQ’s backers, emboldened by their ability to steal content at will, have now started to add content owned by other broadcasters beyond beIN, including fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed-martial arts league.
Officials at beIN said they have been unable to find lawyers willing to pursue the case in Saudi courts, but subpoenas issued in the United States to website hosting companies helped reveal that a credit card belonging to a man named Raed Kusheim paid for hosting fees. Kusheim is the chief executive of Saudi-based Selevision, a distributor of set-top boxes and on-demand broadcast services.
Kusheim, in a WhatsApp message, denied any involvement in beoutQ. He said he was involved in an unrelated legal dispute with beIN. He did not respond to a direct question about his credit card.
Since October, set-top boxes have been appearing throughout Saudi Arabia, loaded with access to the channels over the internet and on satellite television. Those boxes deliver hundreds of premium channels from around the world. BeIN’s antipiracy team traced the signal to space on the Arabsat satellite.
BeIN has demanded Arabsat remove the rogue channels. Arabsat — through the United States-based law firm Squire Patton Boggs — refused. It said the customer who bought the satellite space denied being involved in beoutQ.
The beIN antipiracy team believes it knows how beoutQ is stealing the signal. Essentially, the website is re-airing content delivered to an individual subscriber. Since each subscriber has a unique identification number that is usually visible, known as a fingerprint, beIN engineers thought they would be able to easily identify the offending customer. However, the pirates have figured out how to hide their fingerprints.
“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” Esteban Israel, beIN’s executive director of technology, said of beoutQ’s level of sophistication. “We work with all the top technology vendors, technology developers. We have our experts, we deploy state of the art technologies and we have not seen this anywhere else.”
As beIN’s engineers search for a way to stop the piracy, beoutQ is flourishing. At the start of the Champions League game between A.S. Roma and Liverpool, beIN’s Keaveny noticed the logo for the forthcoming Russia World Cup had been added alongside beoutQ’s. A halftime promotion promised beoutQ’s subscribers that they would see all 64 World Cup games live. The commentary and studio analysis on beoutQ broadcasts are usually from beIN.
FIFA and other governing bodies that have sold exclusive broadcast rights to beIN have supported the company’s antipiracy efforts but have generally chosen not to criticize Saudi Arabia. A group that has offered to invest $25 billion to start two new tournaments with FIFA includes Saudi investors. La Liga, Spain’s top soccer league, recently signed a lucrative sponsorship deal to loan to top Spanish teams players from Saudi Arabia’s World Cup squad.
Sophie Jordan, the Paris-based general counsel for beIN’s parent company, said turning a blind eye toward piracy risked devaluing the rights.
“The rights holders need to be very careful,” she said. “By the time they realize this imperils the value of the rights in the region and not stimulate competition as some might believe, it will be too late.”
BeIN has filed complaints with the World Trade Organization and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which includes both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “But legal time is different to business time,” Jordan said. “We are losing money every day. We will prevail, but we will prevail in three or even five years.”
At beIN’s headquarters, the control room was still buzzing on the night of Liverpool’s Champions League victory as midnight neared. The broadcaster’s director of programming, Duncan Walkinshaw, imagined what resources beoutQ must have to be able to push out someone else’s channels and even give them their own commercial breaks. By the end of the week, more than 50 live games had been broadcast by beoutQ.
“They’ve created a brand without any acquisitions,” he said. “It’s quite extraordinary and very wrong. We’re investing our time and effort and someone is stealing it and making it their own.”
Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut.