What does the WTO ruling mean for Qatar-Saudi relations?

The WTO ruling in favour of Qatar’s claims against Saudi Arabia could push forward efforts for a reconciliation.

GCC leadership
Saudi Arabia's King Salman with GCC leaders pose for a photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council's 40th Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on December 10, 2019 [Reuters]

On June 16, the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued its long-awaited panel report on beoutQ and the pirating of sports broadcasting rights. The three-person panel found that the Saudi authorities had failed to do enough to protect intellectual property rights held by Qatar-based beIN Sports from widescale breach by individuals and entities operating inside the kingdom.

The WTO report attracted widespread attention due to the drawn-out attempt by a Saudi-led consortium to acquire Newcastle United, a football team in the English Premier League whose games had been systematically and illegally streamed by beoutQ.

In a sign of how seriously the football authorities viewed the issue, FIFA, the world football governing body, demanded Saudi Arabia take immediate steps to conform with the WTO’s findings while the head of Spain’s La Liga, which was also hit by the theft of rights, labelled the beoutQ affair “one of the most sophisticated and damaging piracy operations that has ever existed”.

While the effect of the WTO report on the proposed Newcastle takeover remains to be seen, it does hit the attempts of the Saudi leadership to show that it has learned from the mistakes of recent years that cast serious doubt on the judgement of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). With Saudi Arabia currently holding the year-long presidency of the G20 and gearing up to host the annual G20 leaders’ summit in Riyadh in November, the cavalier approach to the international rules-based order detailed in the report makes for awkward reading. Javier Tebas, the president of Spain’s La Liga, cuttingly observed that: “If Saudi Arabia wants to be taken seriously [in world sport], it simply has to play by the rules.”

The WTO report gives significant weight to such sentiment, which has moved from mere allegation to proven fact and cast doubt on the country’s credentials as an aspiring “middle power” in international affairs. For MBS, it hits a weak point given that he has so strenuously courted international investors and global opinion during his meteoric rise to power in Saudi Arabia, and has struggled to repair his (and his country’s) international standing, especially after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The WTO report also shines a spotlight on the different responses to the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt, which passed the three-year mark on June 5.

Facing an economic and political siege launched without warning and characterised by a toxic mix of misinformation and disinformation, the Qatari government adopted a rule-of-law response. It sought to break down each of the different aspects of the blockade into separate issues and sought arbitration from the relevant international bodies. This approach emphasised the institutions of global governance that had been designed to prevent abuses of power, and played a key role in combating the blockading states’ narrative that had tried to portray Qatar as a loose cannon in regional affairs.

Such a response to the blockade was undertaken in the knowledge that it would take time to produce results that – by the very nature of involving impartial international arbitration – could not be guaranteed to generate favourable outcomes.

In addition to opening the case against beoutQ at the WTO, Qatar has also filed cases at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) over the airspace blockade and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over discrimination against Qatari citizens. These cases are still continuing, with the ICAO issuing an initial ruling – favourable to Qatar – and the ICJ declaring that Qatar had established plausible claims of discrimination under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In June 2019, the ICJ denied a counter-filing by the UAE, but a date for a full hearing of the case has still not been set.

Separating the issues raised by the blockade into different “baskets” offers some hope that eventually they may be resolved on a case-by-case basis rather than all at once, which seems to be the approach the Trump administration is belatedly taking. This is a more promising approach than the White House’s attempt in 2018 to convene a “reconciliation summit” at Camp David that failed to gain traction and never took place.

Such a set-piece event would have involved a loss of face by ruling elites who have refused to make any acknowledgement in public that the blockade has failed and that a new way forward is needed. While the glare of publicity that surrounded the WTO report prompted the Saudi authorities to dig in their heels, with the Saudi Foreign Ministry tweeting about “false allegations”, the report could provide leverage for the Trump administration or other interested parties to renew the push for resolution of at least one of the issues in the dispute.

Much may depend on how much the Saudi leadership wants its bid to acquire Newcastle to go through, and whether the risk of seeing the deal blocked by the Premier League – with the negative perception that Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted as an international partner – outweighs the reluctance to compromise that has, so far, undermined all previous attempts to end or ease the blockade.

It may be that cooler heads prevail in Riyadh and conclude that if Saudi Arabia wants to play a more prominent role in international affairs then it really does have to respect and follow the rules-based order. Were this to happen, it might be possible to envisage a gradual thawing of the Gulf crisis on a case-by-case basis, but any such response is likely to unfold quietly and gradually over a period of months so as not to give the impression of “giving in” to international pressure.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.