Saudi Arabia minister of commerce Dr. Majid Bin Abdullah Al Qasabi.

The government of Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sports events recently, bringing big wrestling, golf and boxing events there. One of their biggest steps to date comes in the soccer world, where the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund (chaired by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman) is trying to buy an 80 percent stake in English club Newcastle United, currently in the Premier League. That takeover bid has drawn backlash for several reasons, including discussions of the role the Saudi government (and bin Salman in particular) reportedly played in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but one that appears to have struck a particular chord with money-focused league executives is the Saudi government’s reported involvement in the beoutQ pirate TV service.

That widely-known pirate service broadcasts every Premier League game live in Saudi Arabia, plus countless events from other sports, but doesn’t pay the legitimate rightsholders (Qatar-based beIN Sports, which holds Premier League rights in the Middle East and Africa through 2021-22).  And the World Trade Organization ruled earlier this month that “there is vast evidence that the government of Saudi Arabia has supported pirate broadcaster beoutQ in using encrypted channels to illegally air premium sports and Hollywood content across the Middle East and beyond.” So there’s a lot of pressure on the Saudi government to address this if they want their takeover of Newcastle United to go through. And they did address it in a letter to the U.K. government this week, but as Rob Draper and James Sharpe write in The Mail on Sunday, the Saudi government’s claim (delivered by minister of commerce Dr. Majid Bin Abdullah Al Qasabi, seen above) there is that they weren’t aware of the piracy because complaints weren’t addressed to the right e-mail account:

The Mail on Sunday have seen a letter sent by a member of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to the UK Government which claim they will happily shut down any illegal piracy of Premier League football — if only someone had complained to the correct email address.

…The letter signed by Saudi Arabia’s minister of commerce Dr Majid Bin Abdullah Al Qasabi, who is also on the PIF board, said: ‘No evidence of civil or criminal copyright violation at all has been provided to the Saudi authorities responsible for enforcing intellectual property rights in Saudi Arabia.

We want to confirm how simple and transparent our process is for submitting information and claims regarding the protection of intellectual property.
‘In order to raise an intellectual property issue in Saudi Arabia, a right holder only needs to send an email to the responsible authorities.’

That’s quite an amazing claim on several levels. When the World Trade Organization of all bodies is not only ruling on pirated content, but ruling that the government has supported it, it’s pretty farfetched to see the Saudi minister of commerce claim “no evidence of civil or criminal copyright violation at all has been provided to the Saudi authorities.” And the WTO ruling is just the latest step here; everyone from the Premier League to the NBA to beIN Sports to the Qatari government has been complaining about this for years publicly. The “you didn’t send it to the right e-mail address” bit just doesn’t work as an excuse.

However, that doesn’t mean that this deal will be stopped. And while the claims in this letter of “no evidence has been provided” are absurd, and have reportedly (as per Draper and Sharpe) annoyed sports executives from the Premier League to La Liga to the NBA, the letter does actually say the Saudi government will shut down piracy. How effective that shutdown will be remains to be seen, but they’re on that front at least saying what the Premier League wants to hear. Even if they’re doing so years later and only when they need government approval for a team takeover, and even if they’re claiming they’re late to this thanks to an e-mail mixup.

[The Mail on Sunday; photo of Dr. Majid Bin Abdullah Al Qasabi from the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Commerce]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.