By Eric Knecht
DOHA/GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Trade Organization (WTO) said on Tuesday it would investigate Qatar’s allegations of intellectual property breaches against Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s objection that the WTO had no standing to hear the case.
Qatar launched the dispute in October, saying Saudi Arabia was blocking Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN and refusing to take effective action against alleged piracy of beIN’s content by “beoutQ”, a sophisticated pirating operation.
Saudi Arabia this month sought to block the case from being accepted, arguing that because of vital security interests tied to its boycott of Qatar, the trade dispute body could not hear the case.
But a Geneva trade official said on Tuesday the WTO had agreed “to establish a panel to rule on Saudi Arabia’s alleged failure to provide adequate protection of intellectual property rights.”
Qatar’s beIN is blocked in Saudi Arabia under a boycott imposed when Saudi Arabia and its allies severed diplomatic ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, over Doha’s alleged support of terrorism. Qatar denies those accusations.
It is unclear who owns beoutQ or where it is based. It was launched shortly after the boycott and has illegally broadcasted World Cup soccer matches as well as Hollywood entertainment.
Saudi officials say Riyadh is committed to fighting piracy – in June they said the kingdom had confiscated 12,000 pirating devices.
Qatar’s representative to the WTO welcomed the decision to hear the case and said that “legal experts have found no basis for using the pretext of national security to cover up crimes of IP rights piracy.”
Saudi officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The United States has supported Saudi Arabia’s national security objection to hearing the case. Washington used similar grounds to argue against a WTO case directed at U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminium raised earlier this year.
Saudi Arabia was the biggest market for beIN Media Group before the boycott. The Qatari company holds regional broadcasting rights for much of the world’s most expensive and high profile sporting events as well as entertainment.
The company is pursuing its own arbitration under an investment protection agreement of the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and seeking a $1 billion settlement.
“There has been an utterly unprecedented and brazen act of theft of intellectual properties rights over the past 18 months,” beIN said in a statement after the WTO decision.
It has affected “rights holders, broadcasters, movie studios and other stakeholders across the world of sports and entertainment – and the responsible parties must be held to account,” it said.
(additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in GENEVA and Stephen Kalin in RIYADH; Editing by Mark Potter)