Meddling for medals: the politics of sport in the Gulf

Kuwait’s recent re-suspension from the International Olympic Committee and FIFA highlights concerns over government interference, but the sports movement says there are far more issues at play


Any athlete will say that sport and politics are never meant to mix. But they inevitably do. From boycotts to luring the elite with lucrative citizenship offers, from corrupt competition bids to rigged votes, and from match fixing to outright meddling in club affairs - sport can be highly political.

The recent suspension of Kuwait from three of the most significant sporting bodies in the world highlighted the impact of government interference in the Gulf, a region particularly questioned over its motivation in sport, often considered more about international esteem than passion for the game.

“Sport and politics are more inter-twined in the Gulf than in most regions,” Sports Integrity Matters sports governance consultant Ian Smith says. “This really doesn’t suit the majority of major sporting organisations.”

Kuwait’s suspension from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), football’s world governing body FIFA and the International Handball Federation, implemented in September and October had been a long time coming. The issue is the Gulf state’s sports law, which the sporting associations argue does not allow for independent elections and governance within sports bodies.

Negotiations have been going on since the legislation was first drafted in 2008; Kuwait was suspended for about two years until 2012 when it was reinstated on the promise that the law would be amended. The concerns are also being echoed by other sports.

“It’s a real serious issue to be suspended by the IOC and FIFA and I’m sure other international organisations will follow,”  a UAE-based sports lawyer says.

The Public Authority for Youth and Sport (PAYS) blames Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, the Kuwaiti who heads the global association of national Olympic committees and is a senior IOC member, and his brother Talal, who is head of the Kuwait Football Association. The government organisation accuses the brothers of providing the IOC with inaccurate information about the impact of the sports law.

PAYS member and MP Abdullah Al Turaiji said Sheikh Ahmad “should be kept from harming the interests of Kuwait” and accused the sporting bodies of interfering in the country’s sovereignty.

“The IOC doesn’t have the right to impose law amendments on Kuwait, so the committee should respect the sovereignty of Kuwait,” Al Turaiji was quoted as saying by state news agency KUNA. “We realised unfortunately that the Kuwait Olympic Committee is working with the IOC against Kuwait.”

The lawyer representing PAYS in negotiations with the IOC, Dr Mohammad Al Feeli, warned the brothers may face legal action.

“We discovered that the file submitted to the IOC contains inaccurate information and the evidence used by the committee is extremely weak, so the complaint against Kuwait is baseless,” he said in a statement published by KUNA.

Despite the public hyperbole, Kuwait has sought legal advice from independent firms, according to one of the lawyers who told Arabian Business he had been asked to prepare amended legislation that would meet the Olympic Charter rules.

The UAE-based lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, says Kuwait’s government sports council appears to be prepared to compromise. He says sporting laws in other Gulf states entirely comply with the Olympic Charter and Kuwait could simply replicate them. New legislation could be drafted quickly, but getting it through the country’s fractured parliament remains a hurdle.

“I’m sure this will be creating a huge social and political issue in Kuwait, which will make the government and the parliament move quickly, hopefully,” the lawyer says.

Kuwait is not the only country whose government has or does intervene in sport more than the overriding bodies would like. In recent times, Indonesia, Nigeria and Cameroon have been suspended by FIFA, while the Palestinian Football Association has rallied some support in its bid to have Israel suspended for discrimination. South Africa was famously cut off from the IOC during the apartheid era, among others.

The problem, Smith says, is the way the Kuwaitis have played the game.

“The mistake the Kuwaitis have made throughout is just to be blatant,” he says. “This is not simply a Gulf issue.

“The issue with those international federations, governing bodies like the IOC, is that they are desperate for sports autonomy. You could be cynical and say that’s because it allows them to get on with things without scrutiny. On the other hand, sport and politics shouldn’t mix and therefore governments shouldn’t interfere in sport.”

However, sport relies on government funding at all levels — from grassroots and juniors to professionals, the cost of maintaining a club, facilities and personal equipment would see many clubs fold without subsidies. The effect is often illustrated following events such as the Olympics, when an individual country’s spending on related sports is divided by the number of medals to determine the value for money. If it is not high, criticism can be harsh.

Governments are also significant backers of international sporting events, and the bids to host them. The public spending is considered to contribute towards social wellbeing, as well as national unity and spawning a sense of national pride. Such events also go a long way towards boosting a country’s international profile.

That’s likely the motivation behind Qatar’s bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and rumours of Dubai’s decision to contend to host the Olympics sometime in the next decade.

It is also behind the rationale to spend heavily on recruiting athletes — not from within grassroots ranks but from abroad. Qatar and fellow Arab state Bahrain have spent millions luring high-level competitors, particularly from Africa, to switch nationalities. They are also offered lucrative incentives to win medals and raise the profile of their new home state.

The trend began in the 1990s when Qatar imported several Bulgarian weight lifters. Runners are now the hot pick: long-distance runner Moroccan-born Rashid Ramzi took on an Arab name to run for Qatar and ended up joining the likes of Bahrain’s Ethiopian-born 1,500-metre specialist Maryam Yusuf Jamal as well as Qatar’s Kenyan-born marathoner Mubarak Hassan Shami.

The deals appear to serve both sides well — until it turns political. In 2007, Bahrain revoked the citizenship of Kenyan-born athlete Mushir Salem Jawher after he took part in a marathon in Israel without permission. Jawher, whose original name is Leonard Mucheru Maina, had been given citizenship in 2002 and won a silver medal for Bahrain at the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar.

Countless other countries also have offered citizenship for sporting prowess. Chris Eaton, from the  Doha-based International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), says bringing professional athletes from abroad into a local side often helps support the growth of others training and competing around them.

“It actually does have dual benefits. It can be about developing skills in sport,” he says. “It’s the same as the transfer of players in team sports. But there needs to be some balance in this … so the rich don’t get better and the poor get worse. It’s clearly an issue that the sport itself needs to control. That’s why we have problems identified by sporting bodies in some of the GCC countries.”

Sports Integrity Matters’ Smith says bribing athletes with citizenship and hefty monetary rewards is usually more about raising a country’s image than its flag at a medal ceremony.

“Because of the political situation in the Middle East, generally there’s a great deal of tension created by the need for national prestige,” he says. “Sport is a great vehicle for international recognition — it’s something that on the face of it is not political at a time when politics is such a dominant issue.”

Qatar’s multi-billion dollar investment in sporting institutions and the FIFA World Cup, as well as two failed bids to host the Olympics, also had little to do with the country’s love of sport, Smith says.

“All of those are efforts that most people outside would regard as having very little to do with sport and very much to do with the image of Qatar as a country, because, historically, the nations of the Gulf and the Middle East have not been sporting powerhouses,” he says. “For geographical reasons, this is not a region that has produced sportsmen on the international stage. Of course people play sport but the sports that are generally recognised as fun and traditional in that region are generally not on the international stage.”

However, Eaton says there is another, far bigger, issue tainting sport in the Gulf: black market gambling.

“The region ignores the size and the magnitude of gambling on sport,” he says. “Although gambling is prohibited in the GCC and the wider Middle East, the fact is it still exists and exists in quantities that are concerning, whether it’s illegal gambling within the country or gambling outside the country by its nationals.”

The ICSS estimates Qatari residents bet up to $1.6m per professional football match via both under-regulated and non-regulated betting websites based in South East Asia. UAE residents spend up to $1.33m, and $500,000 in Saudi Arabia. By comparison, globally, an average English Premier League game attracts $500m worth of bets.

“I really believe that the region needs to be realistic about the amount of money that is gambled on sport in their borders,” Eaton says, adding that football and handball are the most popular sports for betting in the region.

The fear, he says, is that betting often leads to match fixing — a crisis that has particularly inflicted cricket.

“We’ve seen inside information about the size and quantum of gambling [in the region] and it’s significant — and significant enough to be causing concerns about the possibility or vulnerability this brings for players and competitions to be fixed,” Eaton says.

“I have no evidence that matches have been fixed in the GCC but the vulnerability alone is enough to be concerning. If you can’t legalise it, at least recognise it and dedicate monitoring resources.”

In September, Doha hosted a meeting between 60-plus international sports governance experts and government officials on combatting what organisers called “the manipulation of sports competitions”.

Convened by ICSS and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the meeting highlighted the global extent of the issue. However, Ângela Melo, director of UNESCO’s division for youth ethics and sport said the Declaration of Berlin, adopted by sports ministers of scores of countries, was “a decisive milestone” in strengthening cooperation between governments and sports federations.

ICSS President Mohammed Hanzab said while the independent committee and other organisations had worked to draw attention to the issues, the sports movement alone could not “prevent and fight the manipulation of sport competitions”.

While the sporting bodies and political players exchange fire, players, coaches and umpires are being left on the sidelines. And no athlete likes to be a spectator — even less than becoming involved in the politics of sport.

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