Diplomatic row brewing after Saudi Arabia pulls TV plug on Qatar

Diplomatic row brewing after Qatar pulls TV plug on Saudi Arabia - Mike Egerton/PA
Diplomatic row brewing after Qatar pulls TV plug on Saudi Arabia - Mike Egerton/PA

A major diplomatic spat between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is brewing at the World Cup after official TV feeds were blocked in an apparent power play from Riyadh.

Streaming platforms for BeIN – the Qatari-owned broadcaster which counts Gary Neville among its pundits – are said to have been turned off across the neighbouring nation.

Sources with knowledge of the situation have sent evidence to Telegraph Sport showing coverage was cut an hour before Sunday's opening ceremony. The escalating row places immense pressure on Fifa as BeIN is one of its biggest right-holders for the tournament.

Frantic negotiations have taken place between the nations, but Saudi's Ministry of Media – buoyed by the country's shock triumph over Argentina – is understood to have doubled down.

The move has particularly infuriated Qatar as Saudi rulers had previously switched off piracy network beoutQ to ensure beIN – one of the Premier League's biggest right-holders – would no longer object to the Newcastle United takeover.

Relations between nations had improved in the build up to the tournament and tens of thousands of Saudis are currently in Doha cheering on their team. Saudi play Poland in their second match on Saturday.

"This is all about Saudi control, and not having control of the most powerful medium in their country," a senior figure close to the sudden fall out said. "Saudi beating Argentina is more powerful than any news channel, and they don’t own the rights to it.  But they want to run world sport and be taken seriously. It is mad."

BeIN is understood to have received complaints from its many customers in Saudi after the streaming platform it owns – called TOD.tv – was suddenly cut.

A letter sent to customers and business partners from TOD outlines how the broadcaster was subjected to an alleged cyber attack before the blockage took place.

"During the Opening Ceremony of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 on November 20th, TOD experienced an unprecedented series of cyber-attacks on our systems between 07:00pm (November 20th) and 04:00am (November 21st)," the letter says.

"During that time, the platform’s performance was regretfully impacted and some viewers were unable to access our offerings.

"We would like to reassure you that the source of this interruption was identified and successfully rectified. Additional measures have also been implemented to secure seamless experiences for all.

"Furthermore, and due to matters beyond our control, we are experiencing an outage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is currently impacting TOD.tv, the official streaming partner of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022. Additional information will be provided as soon as it is available."

TOD broadcasts across the entire Middle East and North Africa and has millions of subscribers in Saudi Arabia, where it is bigger than Netflix and Disney.

The insider added: "Saudi consumers have gone crazy about this – however the news has been almost unseen since the opening game for two main reasons: "Saudi have suppressed the news; and beIN broadcasts 22 of the 64 matches of the World Cup on free-to-air which is still available in every home (basically the big matches are still accessible – stopping riots on the street)."

Sources added that Saudi's public investment fund, which effectively owns Newcastle, attempted – but failed – to buy beIN last year. Despite the behind the scenes row,  Saudi Arabia and Qatari heads of state have been attending games arm in arm, wearing respective country flags. It is not clear whether crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is aware of the situation. Qatar newspapers claimed Bin Salman Al Saud had ordered all Saudi ministries and government institutions to support Qatar’s World Cup efforts ahead of the tournament.

However, messages on Twitter appear to show Saudi-based customers of BeIN complaining to the state's ministry in charge. "You [the ministry] undermine the credibility of the commercial companies in Saudi Arabia that marketed the product," one BeIN customer in Saudi said.

Pirate pay TV broadcaster beoutQ operated in Saudi Arabia between August 2017 and August 2019. The Premier League had been warned BeIN would sever its agreement with the league if it allowed the Newcastle takeover to go through while a row with Saudi continued.

BeIN, Fifa and Saudi Arabia were contacted about the claims. A BeIN spokesman declined to comment.