Football. It’s the beautiful game.
It’s shots curled into the top corner in the dying seconds. It’s jumpers for goalposts in the local park. It’s Ronaldinho at the Bernabeu in 2005. It’s a soggy Tuesday evening in a windy town, far from home, desperately warming your hands holding hot, flavourless coffee as your team loses again. It’s the glories that are multiplied and the tragedies that are shared by being part of a scarved, polyester-clad tribe of like-minded fans.
And it’s money.
And now a $370m deal hatched in the northeast of England, to sell the historic – if currently less than stellar – Newcastle United Football Club might be scuppered due to a Middle East pirate TV station.
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Let’s start at the beginning. Football offers a tiny number of talented youngsters a route from favelas to Ferraris. The sport’s top stars earn eye-watering amounts. If Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the world’s highest-paid footballer, grossing a reported 8.3 million euros ($9.2m) a month, were to drop a euro coin out of his pocket, he would earn it back, plus 50 percent, by the time it hit the ground.
But then you get to broadcasting rights, and you start talking serious money. The English Premier League raked in $11.33bn in sales of TV and radio rights for the 2019-2022 period. Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga have also generated multibillion-dollar income streams from TV companies.
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Broadcasting rights are the golden steroids that force the sport’s elite levels to grow into an ever-more gargantuan global industry.
And so a serious threat to TV revenues jeopardises the whole shebang, say sports analysts.
And while internet service providers try their best to crack down on illicit low-resolution video feeds of matches streamed through malware-heavy websites of dubious origin, a bigger threat has arisen in previous years.
A pirate satellite TV station was once thought impossible. For one thing, the pirates would need an actual satellite. In space. That’s a level of investment beyond most.
But that is exactly what has happened, according to a law suit filed at the WTO.
Pirates of the Caribbean Gulf
BeIN is a Qatar-based, Qatar-funded sports TV network. It has paid incredible amounts to be the exclusive broadcaster of Premier League football matches, as well as those of other leagues and the World Cup – and other sports and related programming from a host of networks – primarily across the Middle East and North Africa.
In June 2016, Saudi Arabia launched a wide-ranging diplomatic and economic blockade of Qatar. Riyadh claimed Qatar was a supporter of terrorism in the region, which Qatar has vehemently denied, saying the Saudi blockade was launched because it refused to fall in line with Riyadh’s regional hegemony.
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Saudi Arabia sealed its border with Qatar – the peninsula’s only land border, and the route through which 60 percent of food imports had arrived. It, along with its fellow blockading countries the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, denied Qatar Airways access to their airspace. And the four countries blocked the broadcast of its satellite TV stations – including beIN – to their nationals.
There is a large appetite for football in Saudi Arabia. And weeks after the blockade began, a new pirate channel – beoutQ – took to the airwaves. It was “cynically named”, read a 2018 complaint made by the BBC to the European Commission, seen by Al Jazeera.
According to a lawsuit filed at the World Trade Organization (WTO), it was a direct lift of beIN’s content, broadcast online and via the Arabsat satellite – whose main shareholder is the Saudi government.
It swiftly proliferated well beyond the blockading countries, with set-top boxes soon available for sale across the Middle East and Europe, undermining the entire rights market, and therefore, argue TV and sports bosses, undermining the structure of funding of the entire industry.
Administrators of football leagues across Europe, as well as governing bodies UEFA and FIFA, have attempted to take legal action over beoutQ’s piracy, only to have Saudi cases shut down by local officials. BeIN therefore took their case to the ultimate arbiter of such things – the WTO.
Taking goals to Newcastle
Meanwhile, in the north of England, British billionaire Mike Ashley, who made his fortune from discount sportswear retailer Sports Direct, has owned Newcastle United since buying it for $165m in 2007. He first tried selling the club in 2008, sparking fury among fans, many of whom never forgave him for the sacking of club legend Kevin Keegan as manager.
It is a club with a long and proud history; founded in 1892 and spending 87 seasons competing in the nation’s top flight. It has, however, been on the market for several years, with Ashley becoming a highly unpopuar figure among the club’s fans for a perceived refusal to invest in the club’s future.
A few months ago, however, it appeared Ashley had finally found a buyer. A British consortium had made a $370 million bid, backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund – one of the richest pots of money to be found anywhere in the world. And one of those reported to be bringing it all together was none other than TV producer-turned-Saudi business consultant Carla DiBello, friend of socialite Kim Kardashian and producer of Kourtney and Kim Take New York.
But don’t expect the world-famous reality stars to be modelling the Magpies’ famous black and white strip any time soon.
Under the reported terms of the deal, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, as the mountain of petrodollars is formally known, would take 80 percent of the club’s ownership.
“It could change the power centres in the Premier League and offer serious competition to the duopoly of Manchester City and Liverpool over the past couple of seasons,” Uri Levy, of world football blog BabaGol, told Al Jazeera. “Newcastle is a club with a great potential, and could add millions of fans in Saudi Arabia, who are well known for their passionate support.”
But it’s not just about winning silverware.
“The planned PIF takeover of Newcastle is clearly about more than business and return on investment,” Torbjorn Soltvedt, principal MENA analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told Al Jazeera.
“Both the UAE and Qatar have a significant footprint in world football, most notably though Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, respectively. Saudi involvement in world football is much more limited, and the planned takeover of Newcastle presents an opportunity to address that.
“The takeover – if completed – would also support ongoing efforts to rebrand Saudi Arabia’s image globally. With a strong emphasis on sports and entertainment in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 programme, the Newcastle investment would also fit into a broader political and economic strategy.”
Of course, there’s a snag.
Would-be bankrollers of Premier League football clubs must pass a test proving they would be “fit and proper” owners and directors.
And at the head of the Public Investment Fund, as he is of most everything in Saudi Arabia, is 34-year-old Prince Mohammed, the de facto ruler of the country. The regime he oversees is being accused of widespread human rights abuses. Political rivals, including his own uncle, detained and shaken down for cash and promises of allegiance in what was billed as an “anti-corruption” drive. Women campaigning for the right to drive are imprisoned and abused. Jamal Khashoggi , a journalist critical of the country’s rights violations, lured to an embassy, where he was killed, allegedly dismembered, and Riyadh still refuses to produce his remains.
It might be a while before the Kardashians are wearing Newcastle United’s strip, as modelled mid-game by Jonjo Shelvey and Joelinton [Carl Recine/Action Images/Reuters]
“The Premier League is risking making itself a patsy of the Saudi government if it waves this deal through without looking at the country’s human rights record,” a spokesman for Amnesty International told Al Jazeera.
But superfan Alex Hurst, chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust, isn’t too concerned.
“At the Trust, we’ve only ever judged the owner of the club on his record at the club. That’s our remit. That’s our responsibility,” he told Al Jazeera.
“If the UK government is comfortable with Saudi investment in the country, [and] the FA and the Premier League happy with their involvement with the game – they are the people to make those decisions. If they’re satisfied, so are we.”
It’s a fair point. Human rights abuses haven’t stopped Saudi Arabia from becoming the UK’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with historic links in industries ranging from transport to energy to weapons.
There is also a potential conflict of interest, with Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, amember of the House of Saud – Saudi Arabia’s 15,000-strong ruling family – owning Sheffield United. Football administrators will want to be convinced he could not be influenced by PIF bosses if they take over Newcastle.
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has been a frequent target of fans’ protests [Eddie Keogh/Reuters]
Gulf analyst Nicholas McGeehan said any commercial dimensions to the deal were secondary concerns. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is primarily political in nature and that Newcastle will be used as a vehicle to promote Saudi Arabia and to rehabilitate the reputation of the crown prince,” he told Al Jazeera.
But the stipulations of the league’s Owners’ and Directors’ Test aren’t specifically geared up to gauge the likelihood of football club chiefs killing and dismembering opponents, and so the focus returns to the allegation of piracy.
If the WTO were to find the Saudi government, which ostensibly controls the Public Investment Fund, had been the backers of beoutQ, this could have severe ramifications for the Newcastle takeover bid.
The judgment is not due to be officially published until next month, but it has been widely reported that the WTO has ruled in favour of Qatar’s beIN.
“The WTO piracy dispute is hugely damaging,” said Verisk Maplecroft’s Soltvedt.
“As the Premier League’s most lucrative overseas media partner, with exclusive rights to broadcast matches in the Middle East and North Africa, the alleged Saudi pirating of beIN content will complicate the PIF’s prosed takeover of Newcastle United. Any WTO ruling that Saudi Arabia is in breach of international intellectual property law would put the takeover of Newcastle in serious doubt.”
Requests for comment for this article received no response from either PIF or Newcastle United.
BeIN pointed Al Jazeera towards a previous statement, highlighting that the United States government had placed Saudi Arabia on its intellectual property black-list over beoutQ’s alleged piracy, not least for “causing considerable harm to European Union businesses”.
The Sky Group, in its complaint to the US Trade Representative, referred to beoutQ’s “wholly parasitic rebranding” of beIN’s content and platform.
Football administrators could yet leverage the proposed deal to their favour, but it would be a risky move, said McGeehan, the analyst.
“I think the Premier League may see this as an opportunity to resolve that problem – but if ending the piracy ends up as some quid-pro-quo for allowing Mohammed bin Salman to assume control, it could prove to be a costly strategic error,” he said.
“What the beoutQ case shows once more is that bin Salman will use his power and money to ride roughshod over whomever he pleases. At some point, he might decide he wants to do the same to the Premier League itself.”
Money. Power. Politics. It’s all a long way from kicking a ball round a park with your mates.
“Football was once the game of the people,” concluded Babagol’s Levy. “But it is now very much a geopolitical soft-power playing field.”
Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell
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Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year. On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the…
Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year.
On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the roof to collapse and parts of the building were blackened by the blaze.
“One of the strong theories is based on internal agents being involved in the incident,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters at a news conference, according to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).
“The issue is being seriously reviewed by the country’s security organisations and we will announce the results after things are clear.”
It is the first time an Iranian official specifically pointed to the possibility of an inside job for the blast.
In late August, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization confirmed the damage to the facility was the result of “sabotage”.
“But how this explosion took place and with what materials … will be announced by security officials in due course,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at the time, citing “security reasons” for not disclosing further information.
‘Sabotage is certain’
In early September, Kamalvandi announced Natanz saboteurs “have been identified” but refrained from discussing further details, including whether internal agents were complicit.
On Tuesday, Rabiei also reiterated that “sabotage is certain” but the incident still needs to be investigated due to its complexities.
The desert Natanz site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities regularly monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.
Following the explosion, international media reports indicated Israel may have been behind the attack. Israel has been deliberately vague, neither confirming nor denying involvement while stressing the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Everyone can suspect us in everything and all the time, but I don’t think that’s correct,” Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said days after the attack.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also said “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities”, adding to that end, “We take actions that are better left unsaid.”
September’s announcement that Iran knows the saboteurs behind the Natanz explosion came one week after IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the country.
The trip was successful, leading to Iran granting access to two suspected former nuclear sites that the UN watchdog wished to inspect.
“In this present context, based on analysis of available information to the IAEA, the IAEA does not have further questions to Iran and further requests for access to locations other than those declared by Iran,” the IAEA and Iranian officials said in a joint statement following the visit.
In a speech during the 64th session of the General Conference of the IAEA on Monday, the president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the Natanz incident.
“These malicious acts need to be condemned by the agency and member states,” he said via video conference, adding “Iran reserves its rights to protect its facilities and take necessary actions against any threat as appropriate.”
Salehi also urged the UN watchdog not to compromise its “impartiality, independence and professionalism”.
Iran, UN and the United States are locked in a major disagreement centred around the landmark 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers, which US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned in May 2018.
The US on Sunday declared it reinstated all UN sanctions on Iran, an announcement that was roundly rejected by the United Nations Security Council as lacking legal basis.
The US is trying to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear deal.
Iran, which has always maintained it never pursued nuclear weapons, accepted the nuclear deal that removed all UN sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
The US reneged on the deal, unilaterally imposing a harsh campaign of sanctions that have hit almost all the productive sectors of the Iranian economy. US sanctions have also targeted Iranian officials and organisations.
In response, starting exactly one year after US sanctions were imposed and other parties failed to guarantee economic benefits promised Iran under the deal, Iran started gradually scaling back its nuclear commitments.
Palestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel deals |NationalTribune.com
Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel. Palestinians see the deals that the United…
Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel.
Palestinians see the deals that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel in Washington a week ago as a betrayal of their cause and a blow to their quest for an independent state in Israeli-occupied territory.
Earlier this month, the Palestinians failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks and normalising relations with Israel.
Palestine was supposed to chair Arab League meetings for the next six months, but Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a news conference in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah that it no longer wanted the position.
“Palestine has decided to concede its right to chair the League’s council [of foreign ministers] at its current session. There is no honour in seeing Arabs rush towards normalisation during its presidency,” Maliki said.
In his remarks, he did not specifically name the UAE and Bahrain, Gulf Arab countries that share with Israel concern over Iran. He said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit had been informed of the Palestinian decision.
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The Palestinian leadership wants an independent state based on the de facto borders before the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem.
Arab countries have long called for Israel’s withdrawal from illegally occupied land, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement that leads to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state, in exchange for establishing ties with it.
In a new move addressing internal Palestinian divisions, officials from West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and the Gaza-based Hamas movement were due to hold reconciliation talks in Turkey on Tuesday.
Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah forces during a brief round of fighting. Differences over power-sharing have delayed implementation of unity deals agreed since then.
Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies
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