Ashley’s £300m Saudi deal in balance as Qatar’s beIN Sports is ‘terminated’

By Paul Nicholson

July 15 – Saudi Arabia’s decision to “permanently terminate” beIN Sports license to broadcast in the country has been called a “sham” by the Qatari broadcaster, but also throws focus back on to the Premier League who are still to rule on whether Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund can buy Newcastle United.

The ratification of the £300 million Newcastle deal looked to be hanging in the balance, with the Saudi-supported theft of Premier League broadcast rights by pirate channel beoutQ being the stumbling block. The perception is that by allowing the takeover Premier League would in essence be rewarding and legitimising the Saudis for theft of their own broadcast rights.

Pressure on the Premier League has also come over the Saudi regime’s poor human rights record and the murder of Saudi dissident and author Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi death squad in Istanbul, Turkey.

The ruling by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Competition (GAC) to turn what has been a bar on beIN Sports broadcasts since 2017 into permanent cancellation of their license was justified in a GAC statement accusing beIN Sports abusing its position and of “monopolistic practices”.

beIN responded saying that they have only operated as any other broadcaster would in the market, saying via a statement saying: “This decision was arrived at through sham legal proceedings that repeatedly violated beIN’s due process rights at every turn and the decision itself is not only contrary to international law but also the most basic principles of competition law. The decision is nonsensical on every single level, banning beIN for packaging its rights in the standard way that sports and entertainment broadcasters all around the world do, and indeed as other broadcasters active in the Saudi market also do…

“We would also question – as we have for 3 years – how Saudi citizens can watch Premier League matches legally in Saudi Arabia with this “permanent” ban on the Premier League’s licensed broadcaster. Or indeed how Saudi citizens can legally watch most major international sport, and how this fits into Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision.”

beIN Sports is currently in the middle of a £400 million deal with the Premier League for broadcast rights in the region. Already beIN is halving rights deals with other football leagues and sports where no broadcast exclusivity can be provided. For Premier League clubs that could cost them around £6 million a year in rights fees from beIN – alternative broadcast buyers paying at that level will be hard to find.

In June, the World Trade Organisation ruled that Saudi Arabia helped breach international piracy laws via its support of beoutQ. It was an accusation that Saudi Arabia repeatedly denied until the evidence became too overwhelming.

For the Premier League the principal is pretty clear. So is the financial trade-off. If they grant the Saudis a seat at their top table and a £300 million pay day for Newcastle United’s unloved owner Mike Ashley, how much of their £400 million TV deal are they putting at risk and what could this mean for their other member clubs?

One mooted scenario around the fit and proper person’s horse trading (ultimately the ‘test’ looks to be more of a negotiation than an integrity issue) was that the Saudis would get their club if they agreed to let beIN broadcast and the Premier League pursue their legal case in the country. That scenario now looks to be well and truly blown away.

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