Gulf autocrats and sports corruption: A marriage made in heaven
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
Remarks at 2016 Exeter Gulf Conference
Global soccer and global sports governance have for the past nine years and certainly since a fateful meeting in late 2010 of the executive committee of FIFA, the world soccer body, witnessed crisis after crisis. Invariably the scandals involved corruption: financial corruption, political corruption or corruption of sporting performance.
Invariably, Gulf autocracies were at the centre of the financial and political corruption scandals. The 2010 FIFA meeting awarded Qatar its hosting rights, fuelling already widespread suspicions of massive corruption of global soccer governance and the awarding of one of the world’s foremost sporting mega events. At the centre of that scandal was the now banned and disgraced Qatari soccer executive Mohammed Bin Hammam. And lurking in the shadows behind Bin Hammam was former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his son and current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Bin Hammam’s successor as head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and member of FIFA’s executive committee, Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa brought alongside allegations of failure to act against corruption a very different set of questions to the fore: the refusal of FIFA and its constituent bodies like the AFC to seriously look into allegations of human rights and particularly the rights of some of Bahrain’s foremost soccer players.
Finally, international sports governance is grappling with yet another politically driven crisis related to the Gulf: the suspension of Kuwait by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and virtually all international sports associations as a result of differences within the Gulf state’s ruling Al Sabah family. At the centre of the crisis is Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti politician and one of the most powerful men in international sports who has used the IOC as well as the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which he heads, to fight his domestic political battles and enhance his global sports power.
What all of these scandals and crises have in common is far more than a coincidental involvement of Gulf personalities. They all reflect in extremity the problems involved in the relationship between sports and politics, an inseparable and incestuous relationship that is allowed to flourish unregulated and ungoverned with international sports associations and governments misleadingly denying that the relationship even exists.
Gulf autocrats are well served by the denial. In fact, I would argue that the relationship between Gulf autocrats and international sports is a mutually beneficial marriage made in heaven. Certainly, FIFA serves as a pillar of autocracy in the Gulf as well as in in countries in the larger Middle East like Egypt or Syria. Application of FIFA rules serves those in power for whom sports and soccer are tools to enhance their international standing or polish their tarnished images, project their countries, create leverage that allows them to punch above their weight, and hopefully manage discontent at home.
Bin Hammam like Sheikh Salman and Sheikh Ahmad, Salman’s protector, who was elected to the FIFA executive committee highlight the intertwining of sports and politics as well as soccer’s affinity with autocracy. Men like Bin Hammam, Salman, and Ahmad are products of autocracies whose rise in international sports was paved in the 1970s when Middle Eastern geopolitics spilt on to the soccer pitch.
At the time, FIFA threatened but failed to follow through on threats to sanction the AFC for its expulsion of Israel as well as Taiwan in violation of the principle of a separation of sports from politics. FIFA’s failure wrote Arab politics into the DNA of Asian soccer and helped shape global soccer’s cosiness with autocracy.
FIFA’s and the AFC’s refusal to enact principles enshrined in their charters has had far-reaching consequences over the years for global soccer governance, no more so since Bin Hammam became AFC president in 2002. Men like Bin Hammam, Salman, and Ahmad are imperious, ambitious, and have worked assiduously to concentrate power in their own hands and sideline their critics clamouring for reform. Hailing from countries governed by absolutist, hereditary leaders, they have been accused of being willing to occupy their seats of power at whatever price with persistent allegations of bribery and vote buying in their electoral campaigns.
Personal and national ambition, corruption, and greed led to Bin Hammam’s ultimate downfall. Salman, like his relative, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s sports czar, has been dogged by allegations that he was involved in the arrest and human rights violations of scores of athletes and sports officials accused of having participated in mass anti-government protests in Bahrain in 2011. Both men have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The role of men like Bin Hammam, Salman and Ahmad says much about the intertwining of sports and politics that is nowhere more prevalent than in the Middle East, whose 13 national associations, Israel not included, account for 28 percent of the AFC’s 46 member associations. As a result, the composition of the AFC’s executive committee speaks volumes.
Six of the AFC executive committee’s 21 members in the period from 2011 to 2015 hailed from the Middle East. They included Salman, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah who has emerged as a reformer and the only representative of an elite to have used his status to promote change; the United Arab Emirates’ Yousuf Yaqoob Yousuf Al Serkal, who maintains close ties to his country’s ruling elite; Sayyid Khalid Hamed Al Busaidi, a member of Oman’s ruling family; Hafez Al Medlej, a member of the board of Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled soccer association, who made his career in the Kingdom’s state-run media; and Susan Shalabi Molano, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Football Association (PFA) that is closely aligned with the Palestinian Authority.
That number has risen to seven in the executive committee elected in April 2015, which includes Sheikh Salman and Shalabi Molano as well as Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, head of the UAE soccer association and Deputy Commander in Chief of the Abu Dhabi police force, a law enforcement agency with a less than stellar human rights record. The committee also includes representatives of Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation (IRIFF).
The Middle East’s close ties between sport and politics are regionally in Asia evident not only in the AFC but also in organizations like the Olympic Council of Asia. The OAC is headed by Sheikh Ahmed, a former oil minister, who also heads the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and is believed to harbour political ambitions in his home country and to play a major behind-the-scenes role in AFC politics.
Ten of the 41 OAC’s board members hail from the Middle East. The Saudi, Bahraini, and Jordanian members belong to ruling families while those from Syria and Lebanon like their Thai and Pakistani counterparts are military officers. Iran’s representatives include a former oil minister who headed the country’s Physical Education Organization, the state entity that exercises political control of sports, and the head of a state-owned soccer club. Sheikh Ahmed’s brother is also a member.
The close ties between sport and politics, particularly in the Middle East are also reflected in the composition of the boards of the region’s national soccer associations and many of its major clubs. Almost half of the West Asian Football Federation’s 13 members are headed by members of ruling families or people closely associated with them. This includes Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia’s association remains tightly controlled by the kingdom’s General Presidency of Youth Welfare that is headed by a member of the ruling Al Saud family even after former Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) Prince Nawaf bin Faisal became in 2012 the Gulf’s first royal to resign under popular pressure. Members of the board of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) are closely linked to Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution popularly known as Pasdaran or Revolutionary Guards while many of its clubs are owned by state entities. Similarly, clubs in the Gulf and Syria are frequently owned by members of ruling families and state institutions, including the military and security forces.
The AFC’s intimate association with politics is further highlighted by former secretary general Peter Velappan’s glowing description of the group’s long standing efforts to build bridges between feuding parties on the Asian continent such as India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Iraq and the Gulf states following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and China and Taiwan. Politics was moreover at the core of the AFC's landmark decision in 1974 at the behest of its Arab members to expel Israel in the wake of the 1973 Middle East war.
It was politics that ultimately persuaded FIFA not to follow through on its threat when the AFC refused to succumb in one of the first acts of defiance in the case of Israel by one of the world body's constituent members. That same year FIFA again threatened the AFC for its expulsion of Taiwan at the behest of China and again the world body succumbed to the Asian group’s defiance. FIFA's failure and the AFC's defiance created the basis for a policy by both organisations adhered to until today that effectively supports autocratic rule by refusing to insist on universal adherence by national associations to the principles, rules and regulations of the global and regional governing bodies.
FIFA in the walk-up to this year’s presidential election requested information from the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) about the arrest and torture of soccer players accused of participating in a brutally suppressed popular uprising in 2011. Pressure by the world soccer body persuaded Bahraini authorities to release two players, brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, but FIFA refrained from investigating the BFA or holding it accountable. In fact, it was evident to me when the FIFA ethics committee approached me for evidence that Sheikh Salman had been associated with abuse of human rights that the committee was determined to come up empty handed. Sheikh Salman has since sought to intimidate independent reporting by instructing his lawyers before he lost the FIFA election to threaten and intimidate anyone looking into the matter. The lawyers succeeded in many cases but failed in their three attempts to silence me. So did Prince Nasser.
Ironically, the AFC’s undeclared yet effective support of Middle Eastern autocracy played into Israel's cards despite its expulsion. The policy served to strengthen the region’s autocrats whom Israel despite an official state of war long viewed as regimes it could do business with and who were less likely to seek its destruction. Ironically FIFA and the AFC’s handling of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come full circle in the wake of the popular revolts that have rocked the Middle East in the 21st century and mounting international criticism of Israeli policies that among other things hinders the development of Palestinian soccer. After years of failed mediation efforts, FIFA warned Israel in late 2014 that it could be sanctioned if it failed to ensure the free movement of Palestinian players and officials in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has so far defeated attempts to suspend it. The question is for how long.
Among the rules and regulations that FIFA and the AFC choose to enforce selectively are the eligibility of clubs to compete in premier leagues and abidance by principles of non-discrimination. This failure is clear in the expulsions of Israel and Taiwan, the fact that clubs in Iran and Egypt are often government-controlled or owned in violation of single ownership rules and clubs elsewhere in the region have ties or are entities of families ruling with absolute power. Similarly, Iran and Saudi Arabia bar women from entering stadiums were men’s competitions are held. Saudi Arabia moreover refuses to make women’s sporting rights universal. Then AFC general secretary Alex Soosay defended during the Asian Games in Australia defended in early 2015 Iran’s ban on women entering stadiums.
This effective support of autocracy takes on added significance in a world in which the politics of soccer has played an important, if not a key role in the development of various Middle Eastern and North African nations since the late 19th and early 20th century. That role is reflected in the fact that a large number of soccer clubs in the region were founded with political associations and continuous efforts by autocratic governments to politically control the game. It is also evident in the politics underlying the Middle East and North Africa’s foremost derbies, including Teheran’s Esteghlal FC v Persepolis FC, a traditionally leftist opposition club versus one historically associated with Iran’s rulers, Amman’s Al-Faisali SC v Al-Wehdat SC, a reflection of Jordan’s East Bank-Palestinian divide, and Cairo’s Al Ahli v. Zamalek.
Middle Eastern autocracy was not alien to the world of global soccer governance whose secretive ways pockmarked by lack of transparency and accountability have come to a head with the controversy over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
Little in Salman’s career as head of the BFA, former secretary general of the Bahrain National Olympic Committee, and president of the AFC suggests a willingness to uphold values enshrined in the Asian body’s statutes such as the group’s neutrality in politics, universally accepted principles of good governance and management, or his own electoral promises. Salman’s past electoral battle with Bin Hammam as well as his election in 2013 and his simultaneous defeat of Qatar’s Hassan al-Thawadi in the competition to fill Bin Hammam’s vacant seat on the FIFA executive committee mirrored the balance of power in the Gulf where Bahrain and Kuwait are more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia than Qatar.
In an electoral message in his first AFC campaign, Salman, a former soccer player, asserted that “I believe that too many power and political games are affecting the harmony of Asian football when the only game that should matter is the one taking place on football pitches. As leaders in our sport, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are first and foremost servants of the game, at all levels and in all corners of the Asian continent.” Salman listed as his values “fair play, cooperation, team work, transparency, integrity and passion for the game.”
Salman’s failure to adhere to his electoral promises and values has contributed to the failure of both the AFC and FIFA to put behind them the worst corruption and mismanagement scandal in the history of world soccer even if a number of non-Middle Eastern Asian soccer executives have been sanctioned. In fact, a cleaning of the AFC’s house in line with recommendations of an internal audit of the Asian group’s finances in 2012 that toppled Bin Hammam, who was in 2013 banned for life from involvement in professional soccer, could have helped spark badly needed reform of the world body.
The audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PWC) suggested that the AFC under Bin Hammam’s management may have been involved in money laundering, tax invasion, bribery, and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. PwC warned that “it is our view that there is significant risk that the AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder funds and that the funds have been credited to the former President (Bin Hammam) for an improper purpose (Money Laundering risk), The AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder the receipt and payment of bribes.”
The audit questioned a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) between the AFC and World Sport Group (WSG) negotiated by Bin Hammam without putting it out to tender or financial due diligence.
My reporting on the audit earned me a libel case in Singapore that I won in 2014 in a landmark case that changed Singapore court procedures and enhanced the right of appeal in libel cases. The AFC and Salman have refused to act on the recommendations of the audit, let alone get to the bottom of the allegations. The only action they took was the firing of General Secretary Soosay in June of last year after I disclosed a video that documented his attempts to undermine the PwC auditors by seeking to destroy documents. Officially, Soosay, who denied the allegations, resigned voluntarily. He has since been hired as a consultant.
Finally, I want to dwell briefly on the controversy surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. I would argue that the debate about Qatar is skewed by arrogance, prejudice, bigotry and sour grapes. That is not say that there are not serious questions about the success of the Qatari bid. The debate however is not truly about the values it professes to defend.
Issues of climate, size and legacy are too me expressions of unease with the reflection of the more global shift from East to West on the soccer pitch. The jury is still out on technology that Qatar was having developed to alleviate the oppressive summer heat. That has meanwhile become academic with the shifting of the 2022 World Cup from summer to winter. How big does a country have to be to host a mega event.
Qatar spent a multitude on its World Cup in comparison to its competitors. It wasn’t a bunch of oil-rich Arabs dressed in pyjamas with tea towels on their heads and dollars coming out of every pore in their bodies. It was like all bids the result of a rational cost/benefit analysis. Unlike its competitors, Qatar’s reason for bidding was not simply soft power but a key element of its foreign and defence policy that makes it far more valuable.
I am Johnny-come-lately to the conclusion that Qatar bought the World Cup. Fact of the matter is that bribery and corruption in World Cup bids was standard practice in FIFA. Qatar was unlucky that it was its bid that helped spark the soccer governance corruption scandals. The question is how one best extracts positive change in dealing with the Qatari case. Depriving Qatar of its hosting rights, which is unlikely but remains nonetheless a distinct possibility, is unlikely to produce social or political change. On the contrary.
Fact of the matter is that most sporting mega events leave a legacy of white elephants and debt. A recent video clip illustrated dilapidated, discarded facilities in cities like Sarajevo and Athens that hosted Olympic Games. I would argue that the Qatar World Cup holds out the potential of change. There already has been change, too little, too slow but nonetheless. Qatar today is the more or less the only Gulf state to grant entry to its foreign critics, human rights activists, labour union operators and journalists. There have of course been any number of incidents with journalists being detained and activists having their visas or residency permits cancelled.
Nevertheless, there is an active dialogue with groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Confederation of Trade Unions. Human rights reports that take Qatar to task on the circumstances of workers’ rights are have been launched at news conferences in Doha. On paper, several Qatari institutions have significantly enhanced standards for the working and living conditions of migrant workers and efforts to combat widespread corruption in the recruitment process. Implementation often is the issue. There is moreover a tension between Qatar’s need to act swiftly to convince its critics of its sincerity and domestic constraints that stem from fear as a result of the country’s demography. From my perspective giving the process of change a chance of moving forward is far more important than depriving Qatar of its hosting rights on the grounds of justice having been done.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario