Sporting attention-seeking is now focused on Riyadh’s PIF skyscraper, spending treble the Doha tournament budget on its own industry-dominating ambitions.
While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman now nakedly acknowledges sportswashing to bump GDP, the mood across the border quietly shifted.
There are no plans to compete in Doha, seasoned observers insist, as the country’s political leadership cultivate subtler international objectives. Two weeks ago, for instance, Doha quietly hosted its most politically significant event since Lionel Messi held aloft the World Cup in Lusail. The tiny nation of 2.6 million presented itself as neutral territory for a runway tarmac prisoner swap of American-Iranian prisoners.
This week, in the unlikely surroundings of St James’ Park, more deft Dohan diplomacy is expected amid simmering hostilities behind the scenes.
As Champions League football is welcomed back to Newcastle, the elephant in the room, or at least in the directors box, will be a broadcasting spat of extraordinary petulance.
Tod TV, a streaming service owned by Qatari-owned broadcaster BeIN Sports, remains blocked across Saudi Arabia, having first been cut during the World Cup opening ceremony.
Fears of the biggest diplomatic spat since the blockade were quickly played down in Saudi Arabia last year. Officials pointed out Bin Salman had been wrapping a Qatari scarf around his shoulders as the feed was allegedly cut.
Yet almost a year on, the stream for the only official rights-holder remains off air across the state without explanation. In theory, that leaves even the Crown Prince without TV coverage for the Newcastle match. Steven Gerrard and Robbie Fowler cannot even tune in for coverage of Liverpool matches when they are with their Saudi clubs.
‘Geopolitical grudge match’
Wednesday’s fixture, therefore, is left as potential geopolitical grudge match for Newcastle’s chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
Source close to talks suggest tensions lead directly to the door of Al-Khelaifi, who also runs BeIN, and PIF associates of Al-Rumayyan. The Qataris are now certain in their belief that the ongoing suspension of Tod TV is a direct retaliation from Saudi Arabia to Al-Khelaifi turning down a BeIN takeover bid from PIF. “Al-Khelaifi was not rude, but a sale was unthinkable,” said one insider. “Instead, he invited offers for a stake, but the PIF hated that.”
There is little love lost between boardrooms on either side when the teams meet. Al-Rumayyan and the Amanda Staveley consortium will recall that BeIN wrote letters to the Premier League to oppose their efforts to buy Newcastle from Mike Ashley. The Premier League insisted it had sought “legally binding assurances” from PIF that the Saudi government had no control over the club. The takeover had been approved after Riyadh-based beOutQ, which had been repackaging BeIN’s feed as part of one of the world’s biggest sporting piracy con, suddenly came off air.
However, with much at stake for Al-Khelaifi, the Tod TV situation will not be raised either publicly or privately this week. Now a major powerbroker as chairman of the European Club Association, he is said to have personally overseen PSG’s transformation from its “post-Galactico” era. Such is the pragmatism of his new approach that he has been willing to do business with Saudi, selling Neymar Jr to Al-Hilal for an arguably inflated fee of £80 million.
The Tod TV issue has cost BeIN millions of paying subscribers, and there are outstanding legal cases, but also some reluctance to antagonise a situation with hostilities between 2017 and 2021 still fresh in minds.
Insiders have detailed how, when relations were at their worst, broadcasting staff had extra security. BeIN Media Group said in 2021 that cyber attacks against Al-Khelaifi were a “daily reality”, after French publication Le Monde alleged that he had been targeted for potential surveillance by Pegasus spyware.
The level of loathing for BeIN within Saudi Arabia was described by one source as “toxic”. Hostilities trace back to the Arab Spring and a former BeIN subsidiary Al Jazeera, which was blamed by Saudi rulers for fuelling flames of rebellion.
For now, Saudi Arabia also has other neighbourly rivals in its sights, including the ultimate owners of Manchester City, according to Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London. “Most of the competition in the region has now moved from Saudi-Qatar to Saudi-UAE,” said Prof Krieg.
“For that reason, I think the real grudge match is actually Newcastle playing City. Overall, the Gulf is moving from that very toxic culture of competition and confrontation during the blockade. Both countries have looked for spaces where they can compete, realising there had been so much zero-sum game. It is very different from how it was a couple of years ago.”
Qatar, with a wealth fund which falls around £120 billion short of Saudi Arabia’s, only gained independence in 1971. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has a population of 35 million.
Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School, agrees with Krieg that, BeIN aside, Saudi-Qatar relations have improved. “I was in Qatar two weeks ago and the view on the ground is that relations are pretty good,” he added.
However, with a multi-billion pound compensation claim lodged by beIN against Saudi with the UN Commission on International Trade, the mood between Al-Rumayyan and Al-Khelaifi is certain to be tense should they cross paths this week.