By James M. Dorsey
No matter how entrenched animosities in the Middle East may be, one principle is upheld by all: never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The controversy over access to broadcasts of World Cup matches makes that clear.
Pricing by Qatari entities holding World Cup rights for the Middle East and North Africa, including Al Jazeera’s belN Sports channel, puts broadcasts beyond the reach of many football fans in the region. Inevitably, that is a public issue in a soccer-crazy part of the world. Add into the mix Arab-Israeli animosity and hostility towards Qatar because of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and the issue becomes politically explosive.
In Lebanon, high Qatari pricing for access to World Cup matches commanded the attention of a Cabinet preoccupied with shielding the ethnic and religious mosaic from further fallout of sectarian and jihadist violence in Syria and Iraq. In Egypt, where Qatar is loathed by opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Jazeera journalists were made scapegoats in a kangaroo court earlier this week, Qatari pricing policy is the equivalent of scoring an own goal. belN charges $140 for access to World Cup matches; Egypt’s average monthly income is $360 a month.
Qatari pricing closed down an opportunity to try to win back hearts and minds by ensuring that large numbers of people in the region would have affordable or free access to World Cup matches at a time that Al Jazeera is under fire for its alleged support for the banned Muslim Brotherhood and has lost regional market share.
Al Jazeera’s operations in Egypt have been shut down for much of the past year. Market research company Sigma Conseil reported last year that the network’s market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012 and that Al Jazeera prior to the crackdown was no longer among Egypt’s 10 most watched channels. Tunisia’s 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country’s five most watched channels.
The beneficiary of Qatar’s political faux pas, Israel, seems equally incapable of capitalizing on the fact that many in countries that border on the Jewish state tune into Amos, the Israeli satellite station that grants free access to World Cup matches.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s spokesman for Arab media, Ofir Gendelman, initially welcomed Arab viewers in remarks on social media. "I hear that many football fans in neighbouring countries are watching the World Cup live on Israeli channels. We welcome you," Mr. Gendelman said on Facebook and Twitter.
Access to a massive Arab audience constituted an opportunity for Israel to subtly attempt to forge links where peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have failed to build cultural and public diplomacy links. Instead, Mr. Gendelman provoked a torrent of abuse several days after his welcoming comment by publishing Hebrew soccer slogans written with the Arabic alphabet that he hoped would prove useful to Arab fans.
Responses by Egyptian fans on social media reflected conflicting feelings of on the one hand favouring a boycott of Israel because of the Jewish state’s occupation of Arab territory for almost half a century and its attitude towards the Palestinians and on the other the desire to take advantage of the free access Israel grants.
"We are taking what we want from you but after the World Cup, Goodbye Amos Satellite," said one Egyptian fan on Twitter. "Get us an Arabic commentator and I will pray for you that you die soon!" said another. A third asked: "How do you translate: a prayer in Al Quds?" using the Arabic name of Jerusalem to affirm Arab claims to the Israeli-occupied eastern half of the city.
Israel and Qatar’s lost opportunity was further evident in widely circulated conspiracy theories that sought to make sense of the predicament of average World Cup viewers in the region.
The Egyptian Sports Writers Association denounced what it said was an "Al Jazeera conspiracy to force Arab nations to watch Zionist channels." The association’s evidence: Al Jazeera, which is suing the Egyptian government for $150 million in damages for disrupting its business in Egypt since last year’s coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi has failed to take Israeli channels to task in a bid to force a normalization of relations between Arabs and Israelis. "We demand all Arabs not to watch Zionist channels, even at the price of not watching the World Cup," the association said.
Former Al Masri player Ibrahim El-Masri in remarks to Egypt’s state-owned Al Ahram newspaper asserted that Israel was exploiting Egyptian poverty. ""Israel is ... targeting poor and badly-educated people," he said. El-Masri described free access to Israeli broadcasts as "obvious propaganda" that was "just the beginning" of a television strategy designed to "hook Arab viewers."
Indeed, a smarter Israeli approach may just have had that effect, an effect Qatar could have countered had it approached World Cup matches as a public diplomacy rather than a commercial opportunity.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title