By James M. Dorsey
Political infighting within Kuwait’s ruling family is about to take a dramatic turn with reports that the Gulf state plans to dissolve its national sports organizations in a blatant illustration of the incestuous relationship between sports and politics.
The expected Kuwaiti move, part of an effort to sideline Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a member of the Gulf state’s ruling family and one of world sports’ most powerful men, and his brother, Sheikh Talal Al-Fahad, the head of Kuwait’s National Olympic Committee (NOC), is the latest episode in a longstanding power struggle that has played out in Kuwaiti courts and international sports.
Sheikh Ahmad as a member of the International Olympic Council (IOC) and the FIFA Council that governs world soccer as well as his detractors in the ruling family who control the levers of power in Kuwait have both involved and manipulated international sports associations in what is effectively a political battle unrelated to sports.
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The plan reported by the country’s authoritative Al Rai newspaper constitutes the government’s response to a decision by the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS) to uphold FIFA’s banning last year of the Kuwait Football Association (KFA) on the grounds that a new Kuwaiti sports law amounted to political interference. The IOC followed by FIFA and 15 other international sports associations banned their Kuwaiti members on the grounds that the law compromised the autonomy of sport. It was the second time in five years that Kuwait was banned by the IOC and prevented from participating in Olympic Games. The current ban bars Kuwait from taking part in this summer’s tournament in Rio de Janeiro. CAS backed FIFA in a case brought to the court by Kuwaiti soccer clubs, including Kuwaiti Premier League champions Kuwait Sporting Club, Al-Arabi SC, Al-Fahaheel FC, Kazma SC and Al-Salmiya SC. The government hopes that it can get the bans lifted by creating new sports associations while cancelling the controversial law. The new organizations would effectively lock Sheikhs Ahmad and Talal as well as their supporters out of Kuwaiti sports. Al Rai quoted government sources as saying that the news associations would keep “troublemakers and those who created corruption in sport in Kuwait and put their personal interests ahead of the interest of Kuwait and its youth out of sports.” Earlier, Kuwait's Public Authority for Youth and Sports headed by Sheikh Ahmad Mansour Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, another relative of Sheikhs Ahmed and Talal, sued the brothers as well as other members of the NOC for $1.3 billion in damages. The authority asserted that the damages resulted from Sheikh Ahmad’s complaint to the IOC about government interference. Youth minister Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Homud Al-Sabah further charged without mentioning him by name that Sheikh Ahmed was responsible for the “total decline” in Kuwaiti sports. Sheikh Salman claimed that the decline stemmed from “false complaints to international organizations in a bid to suspend the country's sport activities." Sheikh Salman blames Sheikh Ahmad for his failure in 2014 to win an International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) presidential election. Sheikh Salman was at the time accused of abusing his position in government to garner votes. The ISSF has since said that it was investigating Sheikh Salman for ethics breaches. It said that the government’s legal action against Sheikh Ahmad may constitute an “escalation” of political wrangling over control of sport in Kuwait. “The ISSF experienced already during Sheikh Salman’s campaign to become ISSF President in 2014 that he showed little sensitivity for a democratic process, the autonomy of sports and ethical behaviour within an election process,” the group said in a statement. Sheikh Ahmad, a former oil minister and head of Kuwait’s national security council who is also president of the Olympic Council of Asia and the Association of National Olympic Committees, was last year forced to publicly apologize to Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, his uncle, and other senior officials for levelling false allegations against them. The allegations were widely believed to be part of an effort by Sheikh Ahmad to leverage his status in international sports to engineer his return to government in a prominent position. Sheikh Ahmed had hoped to strengthen his position by accusing his relative, former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and former parliament speaker Jassem Mohammad Abdul-Mohsen Al-Karafi of plotting to topple the government, launder money and misuse public funds. Sheikh Ahmad had no choice but to withdraw the allegations and publicly apologize on television after a Kuwaiti court dismissed as fabrications his evidence in the form of digital documents and video recordings. A Swiss Court had earlier ruled that the voices heard in the recordings were those of the former prime minister and the speaker. Sheikh Ahmad’s forced television appearance was intended to humiliate him and thwart his ambitions in a country in which status and face are important. “As I seek pardon from Your Highness, I stress that what happened will be a lesson from which I will benefit and draw appropriate conclusions. I am in full compliance with the orders and directives of Your Highness and I promise to turn the page on this matter and not to raise it again,” Sheikh Ahmed said in his apology. Sheikh Ahmed has nonetheless insisted that he was the victim of a “personal attack” that was indicative of strained relations between the government and the sports movement. Perhaps more to the point, Sheikh Ahmad and Kuwait’s travails are the inevitable consequence of the politicization and political manipulation of sports in Kuwait as well as elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa in which international sports associations are as a complicit as are the region’s autocratic rulers. 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 and a just published book with the same title.