Saudi football fans are facing the prospect of missing their national team’s first appearance in the FIFA World Cup for 12 years, amid a dispute over broadcasting rights with Qatar.
Qatar’s beIN Sports holds exclusive rights to air the tournament in the Middle East and North Africa but its channels have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the kingdom led a boycott against the country a year ago.
The standoff led FIFA to step in and it brokered a deal to let Saudi Arabia air the opening World Cup game on June 14 – when the Saudi national team faces Russia – and 21 other matches for $35m, Saudi sports authority chairman Turki Al Alshikh told Bloomberg.
Now with just over a week to go until the tournament, Al Alshikh is accusing Qatar of backtracking on the deal after Qatari representatives denied any agreement had been reached at a meeting between the two sides and FIFA this month.
“Saudi Arabia has shown good faith,” he was quoted as saying. “The meeting was supposed to discuss technical details, not financial.”
BeIN responded on Tuesday by saying “preliminary discussions” had failed to deliver an agreement on price or other terms. FIFA in turn said the deal was still being discussed.
“No deal is in place at the moment and FIFA continues to monitor the situation in conjunction with its Middle East media partner beIN Sports,” the organisation said.
Broadcasters in the UAE, which is also part of the Qatar boycott alongside Saudi, Egypt and Bahrain, appear to have encountered their own hurdles in agreeing a World Cup deal with beIN.
Dubai-based telecoms firm Du suspended beIN Sports channels over the weekend after the two failed to reach an agreement. The channels were restored after a deal was reportedly signed on Sunday.
Both Etisalat and Du are now offering standalone World Cup broadcasting packages to their television customers for around Dhs550 ($150).
Qatar alleges Saudi Arabia and the other boycotting countries have allowed residents to illegally broadcast matches to get around the ban.
Al Alshikh told Bloomberg he had set a deadline to salvage the deal but didn’t elaborate.
Among the conditions Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have set for restoring relations with Qatar is the closing of broadcaster Al Jazeera, the parent company of beIN Sports.
There has been little sign of the dispute coming to a close this week, with June 5 marking the one-year anniversary since the four countries closed diplomatic, trade and transport links.
On Monday, Saudi’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah accused Qatari authorities of having a “negative attitude” as it announced Muslim citizens and residents Qatar would be welcome in the kingdom to perform their Umrah rituals this year.
In recent days, French newspaper Le Monde also alleged Saudi monarch King Salman had threatened to take military action if Qatar installed a Russian air defence system in a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Qatar responded to the report by accusing Saudi Arabia of “reckless behaviour” and creating “a disturbance in the region”.