Could This Be the World's Biggest State-Sponsored Piracy Operation?
Kelsey Stefanson

Could This Be the World's Biggest State-Sponsored Piracy Operation?

Just as Saudi Arabia looks to build a film industry from scratch, the country is accused of being behind a major piracy operation called beoutQ that has already cost one broadcaster billions of dollars, is putting stolen Hollywood content in homes around the world, and yet — for political reasons — is considered too sensitive a subject for many to openly discuss.

Cheers could be heard across Saudi Arabia on the evening of June 25, 2018, as its national soccer team came from behind to secure a stunning 2-1 victory against local rivals Egypt in the final group stage match of the World Cup.

Salem al-Dawsari’s low corner strike, scored deep into injury time, may not have been enough to usher Saudi Arabia into the second round, but it did help banish memories of the country’s humiliating 5-0 drubbing at the hands of hosts Russia on the tournament's opening night 11 days earlier. It also ensured they ended the World Cup one place above their neighbors across the Red Sea who, despite the presence of talismanic striker Mohamed Salah, returned home with heads bowed and zero points.

By all rights, however, nobody within Saudi Arabia should actually have been able to watch the match.

Most screens — from the projectors temporarily erected in the shisha cafes on Jeddah’s corniche to the TVs in Saudi Arabian Airlines' business class lounge in Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport — were showing broadcasts brazenly stolen from Qatar’s beIN network and aired by a pirate broadcaster called beoutQ, which had come into existence less than a year earlier.

Far from being the usual amateur piracy outfit, beoutQ is — experts assert — almost as sophisticated as a legitimate broadcaster, involving satellites and set-top boxes and with estimated annual running costs of several million dollars. It’s also an operation that threatens not just the TV sports business across the Middle East, but, according to many in the industry, the region’s entire entertainment ecosystem.

Tom Keaveny, beIN's managing director for the Middle East and North Africa, dubs it an illegal “gateway to everything that’s produced in Hollywood, or anywhere.”

Another regional exec is less restrained.

“It’s fucking the whole industry — and risks monopolizing the whole industry,” he says. “It’s going to cause a lot of businesses to shut down.”

Despite such fears, given the hugely sensitive nature of anything involving Saudi Arabia — the Middle East’s most powerful country thanks to its significant financial muscle and tight relationship with the Trump administration — not to mention the investment opportunities that exist in the kingdom, there's a rather deafening silence from the entertainment world around the subject of beoutQ. Beyond beIN, very few are willing to openly discuss the operation, let alone condemn it or call for any sort of investigation, even if it's their own businesses that are hurting.

“It’s like the Arab-Israeli conflict,” says another source. “If you start the conversation with [beoutQ] then the meeting is over.”

When a major diplomatic spat erupted between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in mid-2017, it wasn’t just political ties that were severed, but all business and financial interactions. The Saudi-backed blockade of the small, gas-rich island nation would include any transactions with beIN, the media group that was originally spun out of Qatari broadcasting giant Al Jazeera and had set its sights on becoming both one of the world’s leading sports broadcasters and a major entertainment player (it acquired Miramax in 2016).

Almost overnight, beIN lost its biggest market of 33 million people while Saudis — legally, at least — lost access to a significant chunk of global sports coverage, including the hugely popular soccer leagues in England, Spain and Italy, not to mention the 2018 World Cup, which beIN had bought the regional rights to.

But this wouldn’t last long.

Just a few months later, backed by a major social campaign and trumpeted on Twitter by several prominent Saudis (including former royal court advisor Saud al-Qahtani, now believed to be under house arrest after being accused of having orchestrated the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi), beoutQ was launched, boasting a provocative name aimed squarely at Qatar.

Originally it followed the path of many pirates, taking beIN’s sports channels and illegally streaming them across a number of websites, but it quickly took a professional turn.

Set-top boxes branded with beoutQ began appearing in shops across Saudi Arabia some time in late 2017, boxes that could receive 10 newly launched beoutQ satellite channels — downlinked from beIN and broadcast over ArabSat, the Arab League-owned satellite operator headquartered in Riyadh (with Saudi Arabia as the major shareholder).

It should be noted that ArabSat has aggressively denied that it was being used, pointing to independent technical research it has commissioned. In a letter dated March 14, 2019, seen by THR, ArabSat CEO Khaled Balkheyour described the finger-pointing as part of "smear campaigns and baseless accusations" by beIN. According to beIN’s own independent reports — which come from tech firms NAGRA, Cisco and Overon — there is “indisputable technical evidence” that the pirated channels are being transmitted by ArabSat.

More recently, on June 14 a French court also found that it is indeed ArabSat distributing beoutQ on its satellites, the first ruling of its kind and one that came the very same day it was revealed that every single game so far of the FIFA women’s soccer World Cup had been illegally shown on the pirate network.

There is also the matter of beoutQ itself, which via its Facebook and Twitter accounts has updated its customers as to which ArabSat frequencies it is using.

Whatever may be going on behind the scenes, to the untrained eye the service looks totally legitimate.

A beoutQ subscription can be bought (a year of service comes included with each box, which retails for about $100). Highlighting the audacity of the operation, when the network was hit with a major disruption in April, subscribers were given two months for free (“It’s easy when you’re not paying for your content,” says one insider). Commercials for Saudi companies are also shown between games (The Hollywood Reporter has seen an actual rate card in Saudi riyals). The sports commentators and hosts, too, are Saudi (beoutQ began using its own after the original beIN commentators reportedly started discussing the piracy on air). And in the top right corner beams the beoutQ logo, plastered over the original beIN logo in the seven-second delay between the original and pirated broadcast.

To prove it was beIN content being stolen, the broadcaster began moving its logo during soccer matches, sparking what Keaveny describes as a game of “cat and mouse,” with the beoutQ logo racing to catch up. Some viewers may have spotted the beIN watermark, which appeared occasionally on the screen, one element that couldn’t be hidden.

Adding insult to injury, the vignettes shown during commercial breaks included anti-Qatari messages, one animated short showing a cartoonish, cigar-chomping Qatari TV exec becoming outraged when sports fans flocked from his channel to those liberated — almost Robin Hood-style — by beoutQ “heroes.”

“No to monopoly, no to politicizing sport,” it declared, failing to mention that beIN’s “monopoly” existed entirely legally and legitimately — it had paid for the rights.

The piracy of sporting events has already reportedly cost beIN several billion dollars in subscription and advertising fees (it filed a $1 billion international investment arbitration against Saudi Arabia in October 2018, but this was for only the first six months of beoutQ’s operation, and separately Qatar has filed a case with the World Trade Organization). It has also forced beIN to scale back its ambitious plans, walking away from its multimillion-dollar Formula One license in February. Eyebrows were raised when MBC — Saudi’s pan-Arab broadcasting giant, based in Dubai but now largely state-owned by the Saudi government — swooped in a month later to acquire the exclusive five-year rights for an undisclosed fee. This month beIN revealed more than 300 staff, a fifth of its workforce, had lost their jobs at the network’s headquarters in Doha, citing beoutQ.

But it’s the set-top boxes — now being sold across the Middle East and North Africa, and even spotted popping up in the U.K. and U.S. — that have pushed the problem deep into the world of film and TV entertainment, brought the Motion Picture Association of America into the picture, and has regional industry figures — privately, at least — worrying about the havoc beoutQ could wreak on the regional market.

The boxes, Chinese-made hybrid devices — which come in entirely legitimate- and professional-looking packaging — don’t simply pick up satellite signals, they also come preloaded with a number of well-known IPTV apps to stream content over the internet. Among these is Show Box, regarded as the “Netflix of piracy” and offering some 10,000 films and TV series, many still in release, while other apps offer between 2,300 and 4,000 live international TV channels. In an alarming recent development, sources claim that beoutQ has been trialing a "beoutQ movies" brand and eyeing its own satellite broadcast of Hollywood content, cutting out Show Box altogether (several channels on IPTV apps are already labeled "beoutQ movie" channels). 

In other words, anyone who buys a beoutQ box for the sports automatically gets access to a near incalculable library of stolen content from around the globe, for nothing.

“This is the state-sponsored portal to the world of entertainment,” claims Keaveny, who says it’s “normalizing piracy” in the eyes of Saudi Arabians just as the country hopes to build a viable film industry and grow a box office market that analysts have predicted could hit $1 billion. “People are getting used to paying nothing, and that’s very hard to reverse.”

Sources claim that as this year's Oscars ceremony beamed out across the world, anyone using the beoutQ box could have watched every single one of the nominated films — with the bizarre exception of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite — using the apps. The ceremony itself could be watched live via apps illegally streaming the show from French broadcaster Canal+.

“It’s going to kill pay TV, and even damage the revenue of free TV,” claims one exec, who points out that Saudi Arabia — where there are still less than 50 cinema screens — has always been the Middle East’s most important home entertainment market. “It’s going to kill any sort of competition. It’s going to kill the little advertising business left on TV. It’s going to affect all the TV subs throughout the region.”

OSN, the Middle East’s biggest pay TV operator, had been suffering even before beoutQ, battling competition from Netflix, which launched in the region in 2014, and various other new platforms. The ­Dubai-based broadcaster recently laid off more than half its staff and closed down several channels, including all sports. One supplier claims it has lost 80 percent of its subscriber base. 

But the growth of this piracy operation could prove the fatal blow. Insiders say it has certainly dented the chances of OSN’s Kuwaiti owners finding a buyer for their 60 percent stake, which they’ve been trying to offload for some time. On a conference call in November, OSN director Anuj Rohtagi cited beoutQ as a factor for the “temporary headwinds” the company continued to face. 

One rumor doing the rounds is that beoutQ is looking to drive the likes of OSN and other pay TV rivals out of business, before going legit (and doing so with the significant financial advantage of having no competition for content rights). 

While there is no suggestion that Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family is behind beoutQ, in a market as heavily government regulated as that of the kingdom, it is doing more than simply operating under their watch. The original tweets from al-Qahtani, once considered Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s right-hand man, suggest that they’re well aware.

“Unless they’ve lost control of their Twitter accounts, they’ve lost control of their ports, they’ve lost control of their airspace and they’ve lost control of their media infrastructure … they could all have gone rogue,” says Keaveny. “Or it’s being endorsed and supported by the state.”

Unfortunately, this government connection is, one insider says, preventing most companies with Saudi interests from speaking out against beoutQ and its alleged hosts (“it is at the heart of politics,” says another).

Whereas sports organizations, including soccer bodies FIFA and UEFA, were quick to condemn the piracy, acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s role, and seek remedy in the courts, the entertainment world has been comparatively — and certainly for beIN, disappointingly — silent.

Stan McCoy, the Europe, Middle East and Africa regional president for the MPAA, whose members include all the major studios, admits to THR that beoutQ “exemplifies one of the most important challenges in combating piracy in the Middle East.” But he refuses to comment on the specific link to Saudi Arabia or any details of beoutQ’s operation, instead pointing to the MENA Anti-Piracy Coalition — made up of Arab broadcast satellite providers, producers and distributors, also including all the major studios — which, he says, is “very much activated on this issue.”

But the coalition’s actions so far have been somewhat limited.

After sending relatively strongly worded letters — seen by THR — to ArabSat chair Nasser al-Hujailan and CEO Balkeyour accusing the satellite operator, which is actually among the coalition’s members, of being used to “transmit content on a massive scale,” it issued an ultimatum. Either ArabSat “provide the coalition with a position and/or take action to address the issue identified,” or it would make a public statement and take steps to remove them from the organization, giving them two weeks to do so.

The last letter was sent March 6, 2019. In a recent email exchange, the coalition said it had opted to hold back on publishing any statement about beoutQ after struggling to agree on the exact wording. ArabSat remains a member.

Highlighting the sensitivity of the situation in the Middle East, on April 23, 2019, several members of the coalition and other specialists in the field gathered in Dubai's plush Ritz Carlton hotel for the one-day MENA Anti-Piracy Conference. The subject of beoutQ, which many consider the biggest piracy threat facing the region, was not even touched upon, remaining a giant elephant in the room throughout the various panel discussions. According to a source, one industry figure was actually due to bring up beoutQ in a session, but before it began was warned by the moderator, who suggested they could face potential legal problems if "they went too far about beoutQ." In an email to THR, the conference's producer denied telling anyone they couldn't speak about beoutQ.

MBC — whose CEO Sam Barnett chairs the coalition — declined to comment for this article. Vox, the region’s biggest theater chain (which has by far the most screens in Saudi Arabia), also declined to comment. THR also reached out to the execs from each of the major studios who sit on the coalition. Those that responded — Universal and Warner Bros. — referred us to the MPAA. Netflix, while acknowledging it knew of beoutQ, said it wouldn’t discuss the matter, while Amazon said there wasn't a spokesperson available. All these companies stand to lose out from the growth of beoutQ, either from lost subs, lost advertising, lost cinema receipts or lost home entertainment revenues.

But without anyone willing to make a concerted stand, or even look to investigate the money trail from advertising and set-top box sales, beoutQ seems set to continue operating unimpeded.

How it impacts Saudi Arabia’s efforts to build a film industry from scratch remains to be seen. But if a major piracy operation run from within its borders — with the knowledge or approval of the government — is providing the country, region and beyond with free access to practically all Hollywood content, it’s surely going to force studios to question whatever activity they have there. If beoutQ does the same for any local content that is produced, it'll severely damage whatever financial viability that may have.

And if beoutQ is still up and running in 2022, some major diplomatic sparks are set to fly when the next soccer World Cup kicks off.

This time, it's being held in Qatar.