“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive…”

The eighteenth-century Scottish poet Walter Scott would have taken great relish in a verse from his romantic ballad Marmionbeing used to preface the story of the world’s most sophisticated pirate sports network. After all, Scott was also a lawyer and judge.

Untangling the truth behind beoutQ – an illegal venture that stole major sports rights between 2017 and 2019 before suddenly disappearing – has required hundreds of both lawyers and judges. And it’s still no easy task to achieve, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar keen to spin a politically motivated yarn.

According to the Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports – the primary network from whom rights were stolen – beoutQ was state-sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government. “BeoutQ was the most sophisticated form of global theft ever. Of course the government knew about and supported it,” said beIN’s CEO Yousef Al Obaidly. “For three years we have been the victims of a piracy pandemic.”

“This is one of the largest and most damaging heists in corporate history,” added Al Obaidly. “It’s been happening in broad daylight. We all know who is doing it.

“Saudi Arabia’s relentless failure to pay any heed to the rule of law or international norms is only harming sports fans in Saudi Arabia, and sports organisations around the world. The legacy of this illegal service lives on and we will continue to fight it.”

The Saudi Arabian government not only refutes beIN’s claims, but counters with a Machiavellian theory that Qatar’s own government founded beoutQ as part of a smear campaign. “Qatar is in collusion with beoutQ,” said the chairman of Saudi Media City Muflih Al Haftaa. “It is all just a major political game. BeoutQ is being used to paint Saudi Arabia in a negative light.”

In informal media briefings, King & Spalding – a Geneva-based legal team retained by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – have reinforced this somewhat far-fetched claim to at least three media outlets. Lines have become blurred between law firms and PR agencies.

But beoutQ was indeed born out of a political feud. The pirate channel first appeared in August 2017 just two months after the Second Arab Cold War started.

In May of the same year, the US president Donald Trump visited Riyadh, posing for a photo with King Salman and a now infamous (and sinister-looking) glowing orb. Weeks later Saudi Arabia – perhaps buoyed by Trump’s show of supervillain solidarity – had cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and accused its neighbour of supporting Iran and threatening national security.

Qatar was left isolated and denied airspace in the Gulf, a move for which Qatar Airways is currently seeking £5 billion in compensation. The simple 45-minute trip from Doha to Dubai took five hours with a change in Oman and cost around £500 instead of just £50. Qatar’s capital suddenly wasn’t quite as appealing to expats. It still isn’t.

But Qatar had one crown jewel the Saudi government couldn’t take away and ultimately needed – sport. 

Naturally Qatar 2022 gleans most of the limelight. And by late 2017 whispers started (you’ll occasionally still hear them) that games could be shared with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help end the blockade. 

But Saudi Arabia’s most pressing issue was not to muscle in on the Middle East’s first World Cup, but how to air live televised sport, especially Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United matches – the three most followed foreign football sides in the region.

“The Premier League and La Liga are the most popular leagues in Saudi Arabia,” said the Real Madrid fan Al Haftaa. “The royals and those in high society tend to support Real Madrid. The ‘commoners’ follow Barcelona although everyone loves Lionel Messi. Manchester United still have a bigger following than Manchester City even though City are UAE-owned and have Pep Guardiola.”

If Saudi Arabian citizens wanted to watch their favourite teams and enjoy blue-chip international sports rights, like the Premier League, La Liga, the Champions League, Formula One and the NBA, they had to subscribe to beIN. This was problematic because beIN grew from Al Jazeera, which in turn is funded by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – the man famously photographed caressing the Jules Rimet trophy alongside the former Fifa president Sepp Blatter after Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup in December 2010. 

As a result of longstanding connections to Al Jazeera, the now independent beIN – and their impressive array of sports rights, including a £500 million Premier League contract – quickly became the unassuming villain in a political war. Their licence in Saudi Arabia was suspended for alleged commercial malpractice relating to additional subscription fees charged to watch Euro 2016. And although their signal remained unaffected, it was decreed illegal to sell beIN boxes in Saudi shops. Thousands were confiscated and locked away in a storage compound.

“We were basically kicked out of the country overnight,” said senior legal counsel and director of corporate affairs David Sugden. “And we don’t really want to set foot in Saudi Arabia now even if allowed because it’s not currently safe. We are a sports channel yet treated as a threat to national security. BeIN is Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is a threat to national security. That’s all we get. Not only is this totally untrue, but how can it possibly make sense to steal sports rights as a means to protect national security?”

BeoutQ was soon lauded within Saudi Arabia as a kind of vigilante venture. Although it was conceived to steal beIN’s rights in order to offer, as acting Saudi media minister Majid Al Qasabi puts it, “sport untainted by Qatar”, beoutQ quickly evolved into a well-oiled 10-channel pirate network – a kind of illegal ‘Netflix of sport’ that brazenly pinched streams from ESPN, Sky Sports and the BBC to name but three.

In fact, for just £80 per year it was possible to watch almost every major sports event until the channel finally disappeared in August last year. Tracking down and punishing the culprits at first appeared a relatively easy task.

That’s because beoutQ’s formative feeds, certainly during the first few months, came from only a few hundred confiscated beIN Sports set-top boxes. Each carries a unique fingerprint usually providing a clear path back to the registered subscriber. However, the pirates discovered a way to scramble this. “We had no idea beoutQ was coming,” said beIN’s executive director of technology Israel Esteban. “And even after we found out, we had no idea how serious it would be.

“Each beIN box has a unique identifier allowing us to see when it is connected to our server. So we were confident the illegal beoutQ boxes would need to use the same identifier and tracing the culprit might be possible.

“But the pirates found a way to hide things and soon went from using hundreds to thousands of boxes. Every time we unscrambled and turned off an offending box to cut off their source, they just switched to a new one. It was basically a prolonged and highly technical game of cat and mouse.”

Three years later and beIN are still to some extent chasing shadows. They have lost commercial revenue and been forced to make more than 500 redundancies. Saudi Arabia is their most lucrative market and according to Digital TV Research (DTVR) accounts for US$241 million (12 per cent) of all subscription income. BeIN seek compensation totalling £1 billion covering the first six months of BeoutQ. That number swells close to £6 billion when they total the full damage done and add multiple law-firm bills from across the globe. That's enough to buy Premier League rights for 36 seasons. 

The Saudi Arabian government vociferously denies any involvement despite beoutQ’s geo-locked feeds running rampant across their country. They point out beoutQ’s own set-top boxes were manufactured in China by Hoison. The Shenzhen-based company say they simply sell “pet companion robots” and purchase orders with their signature on have been “falsified”. 

On their own website – the now defunct beoutq.se – beoutQ claims to be “a partnership between Colombia and Cuba which is 100 per cent legal and aims to counter exclusive monopolies.”

But authorities from both those countries refuted any involvement. The Cuban Embassy wrote it “has never nor will [ever] establish any type of link with beoutQ… and the malicious information disseminated does not bear any relation to reality.”

Nonetheless, as sources at the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) are quick to point out, Cuban tourism adverts did appear at half-time during high-profile football matches. “SAIP has seen no evidence linking beoutQ to Saudi Arabia,” said Al Qasabi, who concedes anti-Qatar propaganda did also air on beoutQ. “We welcome the reporting of any crimes relating to intellectual property.

“BeoutQ no longer exists. And in fact, over the past two years we have seen excellent progress on anti-piracy measures. We are doing more in this area than any other country in the MENA [Middle East & North Africa] region.”

“It is difficult to establish where beoutQ came from,” added Al Haftaa, who oversees infrastructural requirements for all Saudi media outlets. “But I do know it wasn’t from Saudi Media City. “BeoutQ openly boasts that they are from Cuba, but I doubt that. It was very likely based in the Middle East where IP theft is more widespread.”

Regardless of whether beoutQ was founded, funded or supported by individuals in Saudi Arabia, the government has consistently maintained it was a rogue operation. But there is an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing towards beoutQ being Saudi-based and state-sponsored even if not necessarily state-founded. 

“Three companies are behind beoutQ,” a candid beIN statement reaffirming their position reads. “Saudi Media City provide the foundations, Arabsat the satellites and Selevision the internet streaming. All three are either directly run or supported by the Saudi government.”

Satellite footage seen by The Blizzard shows a compound in the Al Qirawan district on the north-west outskirts of Riyadh believed to be beoutQ’s headquarters. Al Jazeera originally broadcast a video from inside the complex, but this was originally taken down amid safety concerns for the ex-beoutQ employee who leaked it but has since been reposted. Sources within the Saudi government claim Al Jazeera’s footage is “unverified”. 

Frequency analysis of beoutQ’s output, however, is readily available and helps shed some light on satellite provider Arabsat’s involvement. A Premier League-commissioned report by anti-piracy experts MarkMonitor “conclusively determined” beoutQ was transmitted over orbital positions in Riyadh operated by Arabsat and streamed via internet-powered IPTV applications. One of the apps, called EDVTV, as per a map on their own contact page, is based in the Al Nakheel district, a Riyadh suburb not too far from King Khalid International Airport.

“The hardware and software … has been designed and operates in such a way so as to make beoutQ available primarily in KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] through sophisticated geo-fencing and virtual private networks technology,” the MarkMonitor report reads. “The beoutQ channels are being transmitted from the geostationary position of 26.0 East, which is operated by Arabsat.”

Arabsat – which ironically is minority-owned by Qatar – deny this. They countered by hiring six of their own experts to refute a beoutQ presence on their network. But tellingly the times looked at rarely coincided with any live sport and the four frequencies analysed across Arabsat’s two primary satellite dishes were not looked at simultaneously, making the investigation highly selective.

“We commissioned our own extensive report into beoutQ,” an Arabsat spokesperson told The Blizzard. “This was shared with Fifa and the Premier League. The report was carried out by independent analysts and yet the results have been largely ignored.

“We had no legal or contractual relationship with beoutQ. We can’t provide insights on the frequencies beoutQ used because the signal was encrypted. No credible evidence was provided to Arabsat by beIN Sports proving content is transmitted on our frequencies. We have always fully complied with intellectual property laws.”

“Do you really believe beoutQ broadcast on Arabsat?” added Al Haftaa, who again reiterates Arabsat are not a Saudi-only entity. “The Qatari government are part of Arabsat’s board of directors. beoutQ would have been shut down very quickly if any of this was true. The Qataris within Arabsat would have put a stop to beoutQ in a heartbeat because it was hurting beIN Sports.”

Yet reports on beoutQ from the EU Commission in January 2020, the US government in April and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in June all concluded Arabsat satellites were indeed used to transmit beoutQ and further asserted the pan-MENA company’s Riyadh-based headquarters would, in all likelihood, have at best turned a blind eye and at worst actively helped facilitate illegal streams. “The Panel supports Qatar's assertions that … beoutQ's pirate broadcasts are transmitted via Arabsat satellite frequencies,” says the WTO report, against which Saudi Arabia is appealing. “BeoutQ has received assistance from a Saudi content distributor in delivering its pirated broadcasts to Saudi consumers.

“Taking these conclusions together, the Panel considers that Qatar has established a prima facie case that beoutQ is operated by individuals or entities subject to the criminal jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia.”

BeIN also alleges (and the WTO concurred) that the Saudi government sponsored almost 300 public beoutQ screenings in Riyadh and Jeddah during the 2018 World Cup including Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Egypt.

Regardless of who paid for or facilitated these, it is clear that prominent Saudi individuals publicly backed beoutQ. The popular journalist Abdulaziz Al Mriseul frequently used social media to show his support. “Saudi heroes will entirely pirate beIN Sports and broadcast their full content on beoutQ,” he tweeted right before the pirate network launched.

The former royal advisor Saud Al Qahtani – who was fired from his position in October 2018 for his suspected role in the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – also repeatedly stated a free-to-air alternative to beIN would be available “very soon”. And, sure enough, beoutQ appeared shortly after. Its very name – which inverts beIN to beout and adds a capital Q for good measure, unsubtly to allude to Qatar – offered clear indications as to the new pirate channel’s origin.

“Why would it be called beoutQ if there weren’t any Saudi links?” asked Sugden.

“The name is a direct expression of Saudi state policy. It is not only a huge giveaway to the pirate channel’s origins, but it just might be the Saudi government’s undoing. They just couldn’t resist putting the capital Q in there and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are regretting it now.”

“The name beoutQ is totally designed to intimidate,” added beIN’s executive director of commercial affairs Mohammad Al Subaie in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. “Being a Qatari, I really feel angry about it.”

BeoutQ’s logo also houses a pretty intriguing clue. It is seemingly an amalgamation of beIN’s purple branding and the ‘Saudi’ green palette and perhaps even the font from PBS Sport, a failed Saudi-Egyptian broadcaster that was supposed to rival beIN come the next cycle of rights deals. This was a legal venture and it is equally plausible that’s what Qahtani was foreshadowing.

“I was clear,” he tweeted in June, attempting to clarify in retrospect that his original teaser about a new channel was indeed in relation to PBS Sport and not beoutQ. “We would do our best and try to get terrestrial broadcasting rights officially like others or enter bidding for sports rights then make them available for affordable prices.”

PBS Sport launched with significant fanfare and the promise of five free-to-air channels. Pundits included Diego Maradona and the former Saudi international Nawaf Al-Temyat. The Minister of Culture and Information Awwad Alawwad also confirmed that Saudi nationals working for beIN would be migrated across to the new channel to avoid job losses.

It is certainly strange, if there is no link between beoutQ and Saudi Arabia, that the channel would partially assume the look and feel of PBS Sport. Yet in this tale of constantly competing and contradictory narratives, Al Haftaa also sent through a different and far more professionally designed logo that was blue and bears no resemblance to beIN’s branding.

“The green logo is false. The blue one is correct,” he said, adding social media handles adopting the former were not official. “PBS Sport had no connection to beoutQ in design. The channel was a way to challenge not just beIN Sports’ monopoly but really any state-controlled channel. These tend to prioritise political messaging over quality.

“PBS Sport would have eventually had 11 channels and no doubt bid for major sports rights, but it was shut down by the Ministry of Information much to the anger of its founders.”

The evidence connecting PBS Sport to beoutQ is circumstantial at best, yet no explanation has been given as to why the former – which was clearly government supported – was abandoned right before the latter appeared. This doesn’t legally link the Saudi government to beoutQ, but it does seem more than just a coincidence.

Then there is one final piece of damning evidence against the Saudis that is far more solid. It’s a simple credit card purchase from Dr Raed Khusheim, the CEO of Selevision – a Saudi Arabia-based digital entertainment provider and beIN's former content distributor in the MENA region.

BeIN believes Khusheim was the de facto general manager of beoutQ and have what appears irrefutable proof that his personal credit card was used to pay the US content delivery network Beluga for services employed on beoutQ’s website. Receipts of this transaction have been seen and verified by The Blizzard, as has an affidavit signed by Beluga’s co-founder Adam Muller. 

“The payment was finalised on October 16, 2017 at 06:16 PM CDT, in the amount of $2,125 [£1,650],” writes Muller in his affidavit. “The payment was made with an American Express credit card ending in 6922, in the name of Raed R Khusheim.

“Based on my own work … I know that it is associated with the website beoutq.se, and therefore Mr. Khusheim’s payment was made for beoutq.se’s use of network of content delivery servers.” 

Khusheim is also accused of employing engineers to install technical equipment and of setting up a beoutQ call centre from Selevision’s official Dammam office. 

An already thickened plot practically congeals when it becomes apparent that Selevision also rented the same Arabsat frequencies that beoutQ broadcast on right up until allegations of their alleged support for it surfaced. Selevision then abruptly disappeared from Arabsat all together.

The WTO concluded it was logical to assume Selevision would have been fully aware that beoutQ was illegally operating on their frequencies.

Khusheim was certainly not an easy man to track down to put these allegations to, but finally replied to numerous emails at 02:00 in Riyadh demanding to talk immediately. He refused to provide a phone number, instead insisting he’d call my mobile using the encrypted platform Signal. “I had no direct or indirect role in beoutQ,” he said in what sounded like a pre-prepared written statement. “All the allegations are slanderous against both me and Saudi Arabia and come from Qatar and beIN Sports.

“Reports about the use of my credit card are misleading. The purchase in question is confidential but has to do with totally unrelated business.”

Khusheim stresses that Selevision was vindicated when it won a case against beIN in the UAE in May 2020 and was awarded £5.5 million in damages. But this was part of a long-running commercial dispute over the promotion and sale of products dating back to 2015 and does not appear relevant in relation to beoutQ.

Khusheim is a hugely significant figure because he has seemingly left a clear trail back to beoutQ that he either can’t or won’t explain. As a prominent Saudi businessman he could have conceivably run the channel and been a bridge between beoutQ and the Saudi government. 

Yet even with such evidence, beIN have struggled to make legal headway against the Saudi government or any entity or individual linked to it. This is primarily because their fastest route to progress (or as they term it, “justice”) is through the Saudi Arabian legal system.

A landmark case heard in Paris by the Tribunal de Grande Instance in June 2018 established Arabsat had a case to answer, but also ruled there was no “clear and illegal disruption” evident in France. This was predominantly because Arabsat, being a MENA broadcaster, had very weak signals there and beoutQ was thus not prevalent. BeIN failed to win commercial damages.

“It was a worth a try,” said Al Obaidly. “We had to get creative and go to France. Getting any court to admit Arabsat had a case to answer was progress.”

Plenty of federations and leagues, including Fifa, Uefa, LaLiga and the Premier League, have written letters of support in favour of beIN for use in court. And the Premier League have done far more than this. They have tried nine times to pursue civil action in Saudi Arabia but been unable to find legal counsel willing to take their case. The Al Enezee, Al Tamimi and Eyad Reda law firms all are believed to have declined enquiries over a “conflict of interest”.

Going forward, beIN themselves will struggle to pursue any imminent legal action within Saudi Arabia because the WTO ruled the government can deny them access to Saudi courts on grounds of national security. This would probably only change in the unlikely event that the Second Arab Cold War ends soon. 

Bizarrely, though – and despite wads of paperwork to the contrary – the SAIP claims beIN (and other affected parties, too) hasn’t actually ever reported any illegal activity relating to stolen IP. In June the SAIP even distributed an eyebrow-raising press release saying all beIN had to do was send such evidence to their generic email address (saip@saip.gov.sa) in order to kickstart proceedings.

The Blizzard sent a test email to it, containing an IP complaint about plagiarism, and an automated reply was provided. But 24 hours later the ticket was closed without explanation or any ability to appeal. Follow up calls and emails went without response. 

The man championing increased IP protection – especially in light of the recent WTO findings – and also putting his name to most of SAIP’s bold statements, is the acting media minister Qasabi. He has repeatedly distanced himself from beoutQ and in fairness can do so to some extent having only assumed his current role in February 2020.

Qasabi is also a board member for the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – Saudi Arabia’s ambitious sovereign wealth fund. PIF had a £300 million takeover of Newcastle United accepted in April, but withdrew their offer on June 30 following a 17-week wait to see whether they had passed the Premier League’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test.

“We just couldn’t get an answer out of them,” a tearful Amanda Staveley, who had been the public face of the deal, told the Times. Under the terms of the proposed takeover her PCP Capital Partners and private equity firm Reuben Brothers each had a 10 per cent stake in the club with PIF the majority owners.

“We are heartbroken. Of course, we [blame the Premier League] They say we have not answered all the questions and we have done so. But the other clubs in the Premier League didn’t want it to happen.”

The Blizzard can reveal that Premier League champions Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea all objected to the deal. Staveley denied beoutQ was a stumbling block, but Premier League sources told us there were “significant concerns” that individuals who supported the theft of their own rights could be about to become the league’s richest owners. 

Qasabi was one of those red-flagged as a non-disclosed person who could exert influence over Newcastle. He recently wrote to the Conservative MP Liz Truss, the secretary of state for international trade, claiming the WTO’s findings were “a complete vindication for the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia].” This letter did not go down well with the Premier League, who submitted evidence in beIN’s favour as part of the hearing.

Meanwhile, PIF’s chairman Yasir Al Rumayyan – who was officially listed as a Newcastle director in the failed bid – is one of the Crown Prince’s closest advisors so naturally there was a fear he could be influenced by the Saudi government, too.

Staveley may insist piracy was not a factor, but the Premier League chief executive Richard Masters admits to being “frustrated” by Saudi Arabia’s handling of beoutQ; while another senior Premier League source also disagrees with her and hints that PIF “jumped before they were pushed” implying they would have failed the Owners’ and Directors’ Test had they not pulled out.

The jury is out on whether the Saudi Arabian government actually founded beoutQ, while an actual physical jury will probably never be allowed to assemble in Saudi Arabia to hear a case against them. But the evidence they funded and supported the illegal channel and failed to protect beIN’s IP is hard to ignore.

“We now live in a world where exclusive broadcast rights are, effectively, wholly non-exclusive. Think about that: non-exclusive. Consumers, young and old, are accessing everything for nothing and this behaviour is being normalised,” said Al Obaidly at a Leaders in Sport event in London last year.

BeIN’s CEO managed to persuaded Serie A of this argument in June and in doing so got a 30 per cent (£120 million) rebate after the initial £400 million three-year contract was renegotiated based on it being accepted as non-exclusive.

This may set a precedent in piracy-heavy regions for other leagues to be pressured into offering partial refunds on exclusive deals; though part of Serie A’s decision to pay beIN back was also down to a tacit acceptance that it was a poor judgement to sell the Qatari broadcaster league rights that were unavailable in Saudi Arabia, and then proceed to stage the the 2018 (Jeddah) and 2019 (Riyadh) Italian Super Cups there as part of an £18.2 million agreement.

The long-term consequence of beoutQ is rights in the MENA region have been devalued. BeIN’s license has also gone from being suspended to “terminated” and such is their grip on the market that there is no legal means to watch most major sports events in Saudi Arabia. This means beoutQ or a spin off using similar technology could return again. The boxes are certainly capable of being repurposed.

Of course, the Saudis may well go to the other extreme and do what they originally intended – start a legal sports channel or develop KSA Sports (which already airs the Saudi Professional League) through expansion or partnerships to be MENA-wide. This is a key requirement for most rights deals and isn’t likely to change any time soon. 

Both these approaches would require substantial investment – beIN still haven’t broken even in six years – and, as importantly, patience because the Premier League and La Liga are not available until 2022 and 2023 respectively. The Champions League tender for MENA covering 2021-2024 is currently in progress, delayed slightly by Covid-19, and likely to come too early for any Saudi-based bid, while the next World Cup up for grabs to televise is 2030.

A closing consideration is whether rights sellers who have had their IP stolen will act as informal judges in the absence of actual ones and refuse to do business with Saudi broadcasters. This feels unlikely. Money talks and Saudi Arabia (much like Qatar) have had no problems bringing football, boxing, golf, racing and snooker to their shores which ultimately involves forging relationships with the same contacts they may one day buy TV rights from. But if beIN does succeed in categorically proving Saudi government involvement in beoutQ then the pirate channel designed to give sport to Saudis just might be responsible for taking it away from them.