WTO rules against Saudis in Qatar TV spat
A World Trade Organization panel ruled Tuesday that Riyadh failed to protect intellectual property rights of Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN by refusing to take action against a Saudi pirate TV outfit.
The WTO established the panel in December 2018 to settle the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has been locked in a bitter feud with its Gulf neighbours after the severing of diplomatic ties a year earlier.
Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, abruptly cut diplomatic, economic and travel ties with Qatar in June 2017, insisting it was too close to Iran and funding radical Islamist movements.
Qatar fiercely rejected those allegations and refused to budge on 13 demands made by its allies-turned-adversaries, including closure of the Doha-based Al Jazeera news network and shutting a Turkish military base in the emirate.
In Tuesday’s case, Qatar had accused Saudi Arabia of blocking Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN and not taking proper action against the theft of its content by a Saudi-based piracy outlet called “beoutQ”.
The WTO panel found that Saudi Arabia had not provided for domestic criminal procedures and penalties to be applied to beoutQ, and that Riyadh prevented beIN from obtaining Saudi legal counsel to enforce its IP rights through the Saudi judicial system.
It also largely rejected Saudi Arabia’s assertion that national security concerns justified its economic actions against Doha — marking just the second time in history WTO experts have taken a stand on a country’s national security claims.
The panel called on Riyadh to bring its measures into conformity with WTO rules.
– ‘Resounding victory’ –
Qatari Commerce and Industry Minister Ali bin Ahmed Al Kuwari hailed the ruling.
“Qatar, and international rights holders, have scored a resounding victory today,” he said in a statement, voicing expectation that Saudi Arabia would “respect this decisive ruling and end the theft and piracy of IP rights at once.”
Saudi Arabia’s mission to the WTO in Geneva meanwhile stressed that the panel in its ruling had acknowledged that Riyadh was seeking “to protect Saudi citizens and the Saudi population, Saudi government institutions, and the territory of Saudi Arabia from the threats of terrorism and extremism” in the region.
It also suggested that the panel had found in its claim that national security concerns justified its economic actions against Doha.
But while the WTO panel said national security could justify not providing beIN with the legal means to defend itself before a Saudi court, it did not explain why Riyadh had not taken action against beoutQ.
The 164-member WTO has historically tried to keep national security questions out of its trade dispute system.
But last year, the global trade body issued its first-ever ruling involving its national security clause — known as Article 21.
In that ruling, it determined that Russia had the right to invoke national security concerns as a justification for imposing restrictions on road and rail transit of Ukrainian goods.
The ruling on beIN could have serious implications for Saudi Arabia’s prospective takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United.
The WTO’s findings raise serious questions about the ability of the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) to pass the Premier League’s test for prospective owners and directors to complete the takeover.