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Meddling for medals: the politics of sport in the Gulf
November 27, 2015, 8:26 am

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.

Source: Arabian Business

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