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Caged Politics: UFC’s new Arabic language streaming app excludes Qatar amid political crisis

Karim Zidan delves into the UFC’s new Arabic language streaming app, which is available in 21 countries across the Middle East and North Africa region except for Qatar. 

Last week, Abu Dhabi Media (ADM) announced the launch of the first Arabic language UFC streaming platform in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Dubbed ‘UFC Arabia,’ the streaming platform will operate as a digital subscription service that will allow mixed martial arts (MMA) fans across 21 countries in the region exclusive online access to live events.

The service launched in time for the UFC on ESPN: Dos Anjos vs Edwards event on July 20 as a simulcast on UFC Arabia and Abu Dhabi Sports 4. Thereafter, UFC events will be exclusive to UFC Arabia, which is available in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen.

However, while the service is an advancement for UFC consumers in the Middle East, the ‘UFC Arabia’ streaming app will not be available in Qatar, likely due to the Saudi-led boycott of the peninsular Arab country. Understanding the reasons behind Qatar’s exclusion from UFC programming begins by understanding the diplomatic crisis taking place in the Middle East.

Qatar’s Diplomatic Crisis

The Qatar diplomatic crisis began in June 2017 when the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ — a coalition comprised of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt) severed relations with Qatar and imposed a diplomatic, travel, and trading boycott. The Saudi-led coalition cited Qatar’s alleged support and funding for terrorism as the main reason for the boycott, while also criticizing Qatar’s strong bilateral relations with Iran. The ATQ coalition then proceeded to demand that Qatar reduce diplomatic relations with Iran — the main regional rival to Sunni-Muslim ruled Saudi Arabia — put an end to the Turkish military base in the country, and close down state-funded news broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

The ATQ accused Qatar of supporting international terrorism and sanctioned non-state players like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. While Qatar has acknowledged that it provided assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country denied any involvement with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS). Qatar has also provided weapons and funding to rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, something that Saudi Arabia has also done.

The diplomatic crisis created significant logistical issues for Qatar, a country dependent on imports by land and sea. About 40% of the country’s food came through its land border with Saudi Arabia, which was closed following the boycott. Qatar’s stock market dropped 10% (approx. $15 billion at the time), and air travel for Qatar Airways had to be rerouted to Africa and Europe through Iranian air space. However, Qatar continues to thrive economically despite the isolation. Turkey and Iran compensated for the food shortage and air space concerns, while Qatar continues to be a global leader in liquified natural gas production. And despite the blockade, Qatar continues to provide natural gas to the UAE through the Dolphin Energy pipeline.

Now more than two years removed from the start of the diplomatic embargo, little has changed in the region. Al Jazeera continues to operate while the Muslim Brotherhood still find sanctuary in Qatar as guests of Tamim Bin Hamad, the Emir of Qatar. Most recently, Jordan, which had downgraded its diplomatic representation in Qatar, reestablished ties to the isolated country by appointing an ambassador to Qatar for the first time in two years.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE once maintained the Gulf region’s autocratic status quo through military might and authoritarianism — a strategy that is waning in the face of Qatar’s resistance to the boycotts. While the Arab Quartet’s attempts to use a boycott to put an end to Qatar’s political and socio-economic polices have failed, they have begun to focus on limiting Qatar’s soft power strategy, including Qatar’s significant influence in sports broadcasting.

Abu Dhabi’s UFC Strategy

In April 2019, state owned pay-TV broadcaster Abu Dhabi Media secured exclusive media rights to the UFC in the MENA region. As a result, UFC coverage returned to ADM for the first time in three years after the promotion’s previous partner, Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) killed a long-term rights deal between 2017-2021 after closing down five of its six sports channels in an effort to control programming costs.

Three months later, ADM announced the launch of UFC Arabia, which offers live digital coverage of all UFC show in English and Arabic, as well as archived footage, for a monthly fee of $4.99.

“We are thrilled to allow all passionate fans in the UAE, and MENA, a chance to exclusively live stream all UFC events, and this step reaffirms our commitment to bringing all major sports to our viewers in the region.” Abdulrahman Awadh Al Harthi, Abu Dhabi Media’s executive director of TV, said. “Abu Dhabi Media is keen to serve its audiences by diversified media channels, and reaching out through unique online and digital platforms. We are proud of this launch which identifies our efforts to adapt the best practices by providing the best entertaining and useful content.”

UFC UFC Senior Vice President, International and Content, David Shaw added: “UFC Arabia will provide fans in the MENA region with one place to view all UFC live events as well as hundreds of hours of shoulder programming. We are committed to growing the sport across the region and this new streaming service will help us achieve this common goal.”

Despite the promotion’s claim that the new deal will help grow the sport across the region, the service will not be available in Qatar, thus indirectly associating the UFC with the Saudi-led boycott against the Gulf country.

Neither the UFC, nor Abu Dhabi Media have responded to a request for comment.

This is not the first time that sports have acted as a combat zone for Qatar’s diplomatic crisis. The 23rd Arabian Gulf Cup was scheduled to take place in Qatar in November 2017 but was relocated to Kuwait after Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all withdrew because of the diplomatic crisis. During a 2019 Asian Cup semi-final between the UAE and Qatar (which was hosted in the UAE), Emirati supporters threw shoes and bottles onto the pitch during their team’s 4-0 loss.

The boycott extended to beIN Sports, the Al Jazeera television network’s sports franchise, in an attempt to limit Qatar dominance in the MENA region’s sports broadcasting market. However, the UAE decided to lift the ban on beIN Sports shortly following the boycott as a preemptive measure to limit criticism from football fans across the region.

Furthermore, Qatar is expected to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which will mark the first time that the mega sporting event will take place in an Arab country. Given Saudi and the UAE’s failed attempts to relocate the event, Qatar is now in an advantageous position. While the boycott forbids nationals from the boycotting states to travel to Qatar, it is likely that some of those nationals will defy the restrictions in order to attend the World Cup. This complicates the ATQ’s embargo strategy and weakens their position at the bargaining table.

As for the UFC, the promotion has now involved itself, albeit subtly, in a geopolitical crisis in the Middle East region. The UFC has also signed a lengthy agreement with Abu Dhabi that would see the promotion host annual events in the Gulf state for the next five years, starting with the UFC 242 Pay-Per-View event headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier in September. Given the UFC’s longterm commitment to Abu Dhabi, it is unlikely that the promotion will attempt to offer a streaming service in Qatar.

Instead of using its platform to rekindle relations through sports, the UFC has allowed itself to become a battlefield for the ATQ’s diplomatic crisis with Qatar.

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