Salman’s Moral Rectitude or Everything You Wanted to Know about FIFA but Never Dared to Ask

Let me start off on a positive note. I have been one of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA presidential candidate, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa’s, staunchest and most persistent critics. Salman has put forward proposals for reform of FIFA that have merit. He has taken personal gain out of the game by insisting that he won’t draw a salary and more importantly he has proposed to separate FIFA’s governance duties from its business activities – a change that goes to the core of the world soccer body’s patronage politics and financial corruption. It’s a separation of powers that I and others have long argued for.

Having said this, let me quickly disabuse you of any illusions that my comments on Salman’s reform proposals imply a change in my position with regard to the requirement that he answer allegations that he was part of a crackdown in 2011 on athletes and sports executives who exercised their right of freedom of expression by participating in peaceful anti-government protests. Nor has my comment on his reform proposal altered my view of Salman as the embodiment of the role of Arab autocracy in global soccer and sports governance.

To be clear, I have no doubt that Salman is the wrong man for the job and no self-respecting organization, certainly not one with the kind of credibility and deep structural problems that FIFA has, would entertain his candidacy without a proper and thorough investigation of allegations against him, if only to clear the air and leave no shadow of doubt at a time that corruption and legal proceedings in the United States and Switzerland have torn the group’s reputation to shreds. In fact, I would argue that Salman, if he is serious about wanting to help FIFA put the crisis behind it, would not only have welcomed an investigation but would have honestly and openly addressed legitimate questions. He hasn’t. Yet, if there is one thing FIFA’s next president has to bring to the table, it is an unblemished reputation that will give him the authority and the credibility to introduce deep-seated reforms and restructuring and to symbolize what will be a new era in the life of the soccer body, an era in which it is seen to be rooting out the structures that enabled political and financial corruption. Without satisfactorily addressing unanswered questions, Salman is not that man.

There is no evidence that neither FIFA nor Salman truly recognizes this. FIFA’s vote for a new president on February 26 is in effect a litmus test that will demonstrate whether FIFA, its confederations and national associations still live in a bubble in which in essence they believe that business can go on as usual with at best some cosmetic changes or if FIFA has returned to the real world in which mass protests across the globe and the emergence in the US elections of figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders are evidence of global distrust of the system and lack of confidence in mainstream leaders – a fact that FIFA no longer can deny or evade.

Prominent American sports journalist and one time FIFA presidential candidate Grant Wahl suggested recently in Sports Illustrated that FIFA’s problem is that a majority of its base, the national associations, may not want change. That could very well be true. Political corruption of sports is not a particularly Middle Eastern or North African characteristic and may well be part of FIFA’s DNA. If so, there is little hope for FIFA and Salman is the man to perpetuate the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that has yet to be regulated.

What Salman represents with his proposals for reform and slick presentations made on advice of high-powered public relations and electoral consultants goes far beyond sports. It involves what Middle East scholar Steve Heydermann once termed the upgrading of Arab autocracy. That is exactly what the Gulf States are doing.

Tumbling oil prices, regional turmoil, domestic discontent and strained relations with the United States are forcing them to upgrade, fine tune, and adjust their autocracies that remain absolute dictatorships by adding forward looking language and sometimes a creative touch like the UAE’s newly appointed minister of happiness. The projection is one of reform and progressive thinking.

The problem is that the fundamental power structure doesn’t change and that is the reason why FIFA’s insistence that it is reforming itself has little credibility as long as someone like Salman can be a candidate. In fact, FIFA’s handling of the questions swirling around Salman go to the core of whether it is sincere about change. FIFA refused in its review of Salman to take into consideration reports published by the Bahrain News Agency, not an independent media organization but a government mouthpiece, an official organ, in a country in which the media is strictly controlled and freedom of the press is non-existent. Those official reports documented the country’s abuse of the rights of athletes and sports executives.

Moreover, Salman’s track record hardly recommends him as a candidate who will be capable and willing to reform FIFA. In fact, FIFA is adopting the same attitude taken by the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC, when it first elected Salman as its president in 2013 at a time that it was mired in a corruption scandal. The AFC had no compunction about having someone as president who for years refused to even respond to questions about his alleged role in the arrest, abuse and torture of athletes in his own country.

More recently, as a FIFA presidential candidate Salman has adopted the principle of autocratic upgrading and has become more sophisticated in his efforts to spin facts and avoid answering questions that at the very least could put him in political hot water at home and internationally. In doing so Salman has had a relatively softball media that has failed to ask him the really tough questions. He has ensured that by refusing to take questions that would be tough and has refused to grant interviews to those who would ask him the tough questions.

My name was allegedly banned for several years in the corridors of the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Those AFC officials willing to talk to me would do so in secrecy. That has changed with Salman’s appointment of a new head of communications, who indeed has reached out and been responsive to requests and questions. In a surprising move I was asked late last year whether I would be willing to meet Salman. I said I’d be happy and subsequently said the meeting would only make sense if he was willing to entertain and answer tough questions rather than dance deftly with words. That was the last I heard from Salman’s people except for a recent letter from his lawyers to a German radio station that had interviewed me and whom I had previously defeated when they represented Salman’s relative and Bahraini sports boss, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a son of the king and head of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and it’s Olympic committee, in another legal altercation aimed at intimidating media and controlling the message with heavy handed tactics rather than engagement.

(Mehr News Agency)

The fact of the matter is that Salman’s response to critical media inquiries goes more often than not beyond evasion. Salman doesn’t bother to respond at all. He sends his legal representatives, London-based law firm Shillings& Co, whose motto is ‘Defending Reputation, Demanding Privacy.’ – a motto that is grounded in both the nature of British libel law that intuitively stresses the right to privacy above freedom of the media and of Arab autocracy. The list of those at the receiving end of Shilling’s numerous epistles include Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, German radio, The Guardian, The Independent and L’Equipe, just to name a few.

This is Salman’s concept of engagement and transparency. Intimidation through lawyers and softball interviews rather than true engagement are the building blocks of Salman’s media policy. That hardly bodes well for FIFA reform. When I recently asked Shillings to confirm the threatening letters to various media, the law firm advised me that they could not confirm or deny who their clients were. When I then advised them that was not the issue since I had various letters of theirs on behalf of Nasser and Salman in which I was the object they simply did not reply.

The number of issues Salman refuses to clarify is getting longer. To be fair some may be more difficult to prove and in fact less relevant, while others demand clear cut answers. In fact, I would argue that it is the duty of responsible and critical journalists and researchers to separate the wheat from the chaff and to refrain from getting involved in a witch hunt.

Let’s deal briefly with two issues that I think would behoove Salman to clarify but will not be the primary ones because Salman may not have been aware of them or involved in wrong doing.

Issue number one is the fixing of a match in Bahrain when Togo fielded a fake team. This happened on Salman’s watch when he was head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and yes the buck stopped with him. There is however no evidence that he was aware of the fix, in any way involved in it, or that he benefitted from it.

The same is true for alleged vote buying in the 2009 AFC presidential election that Salman ultimately lost to Mohammed Bin Hammam. It is repeatedly alleged that Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), head of the Olympic Committee of Asia and, since last May part of FIFA’s executive committee, was buying votes for Salman. Again there is no evidence that Salman knew this or was actively involved even though he would have been the beneficiary if it happened.

Salman has certainly denied the allegations. ”Sheikh Salman had absolutely no involvement in vote-buying and there has been no evidence suggesting he was involved. Sheik Salman is committed to transparency and has zero tolerance for corruption. He has pledged to work tirelessly to help restore FIFA’s reputation if he is elected president,” a spokesman for Salman said.

Yet, FIFA was never inclined to investigate the allegations so that they could definitively be put to bed if incorrect. Efforts by journalist and former FIFA ethics committee member Les Murray to get the soccer body to investigate were rejected. And Salman is not known to have encouraged an investigation in a bid to remove any doubt.

There have also been muted questions about Salman’s financial management of the Bahrain Football Association and his 2009 AFC electoral campaign. That issue has barely come up in the media because of the effectiveness of Salman’s lawyers and because the source is a little known Bahraini newspaper with dubious ownership. Nonetheless, it would behoove Salman to remove any doubts by providing chapter and verse rather than just flat denials and unleashing his legal advisors to ensure that the matter is not further pursued.

The most immediate and most credible allegations against Salman remain the human rights ones and Salman’s management of the Asian Football Confederation. Let’s start with the allegations of human rights abuse. They are credible in the sense that there are undeniable facts that Salman not only ignores, denies, brushes over or distorts. His statements by and large contradict the facts. At times he contradicts himself, and for sure has yet to square the circle.

The facts are straightforward. Some 150 athletes and sports executives were arrested in 2011 during peaceful mass anti-government protests that were brutally squashed by Saudi-backed security forces. They included three of the Bahrain national soccer team’s top players, two of whom have asserted that they were tortured in prison. One of the players was hauled in front of a kangaroo court on state-run television during which Prince Nasser phoned in to warn that “people have entered labyrinths in which they will be lost… Anyone who involved himself in these matters and was part of it will be held accountable. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is — he will now be held accountable. Today is judgment day. May God grant patience and strength to all. Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape… It is known who stood against us. The days will judge.”

Salman initially flatly refused to discuss the events of 2011, maintaining ad absurdum that sports and politics are separate. Now as a FIFA candidate no longer able to throw down a blanket refusal, and under increasing pressure to respond, his meagre answers get him only further tied up into knots. The denial that sports and politics are separate has effectively been thrown out the window.

The events prove that, as does Salman’s implicit acknowledgement that the government was acting against dissident athletes and sports executives during what was a popular revolt in Bahrain that initially demanded reform, not regime change. What happened is beyond doubt even if Salman has used cheap tricks to paint a different picture. Salman persuaded athletes who 4.5 years ago described their torture in detail, criticized the FIFA candidate for not standing up for them, and have remained silent since, to suddenly endorse his candidacy in press meetings arranged by his election campaign. It doesn’t get much cruder than that and hardly bodes well for what Salman would bring to the leadership of one of the world’s foremost sports associations.

The facts in the Salman case are not that difficult. The questions he needs to answer are straight forward. The consequences of answering truthfully could however be severe, because he would have to actually contradict his own government and say that what the government has said was not true. Even worse as a member of the ruling family he would have to state that he disagreed with the government’s policy and actions. It is not something Salman is willing or can do, but without that whatever he says lacks credibility and should be grounds enough for FIFA to disqualify him. Let me explain

The basis of the allegations against Salman and the questions he needs to answers are primarily reports carried by the Bahrain News Agency (BNA). BNA is the official organ of the government in a country that Reporters Without Borders ranks number 163 out of 180 countries; the media are tightly controlled through repressive articles in its penal code; journalists, activists, photographers and social media users are targeted; and in which writers exercise self-censorship including avoiding statements of fact like the fact that Shiites constitute the majority in Bahrain. BNA does not carry anything that has not been sanctioned by the government.

In 2011, BNA reported that Nasser had issued a decree ordering that measures be taken against those guilty of insulting Bahrain and its leadership. Nasser formed the committee after an earlier royal decree had declared a state of emergency in Bahrain. The royal decree allowed the Bahrain military to crackdown on the protests and establish military courts. Salman reportedly was at the time general secretary of the supreme sports and youth council as well as head of the Bahrain Football Association.

A series of BNA stories further reported on the implementation of Prince Nasser’s decree and the launch of a committee to investigate “breaches by individuals associated with the sports movement during the recent unfortunate events in the Kingdom of Bahrain.” BNA reported that the committee met on 10 April 2011 under Salman’s chairmanship.

BNA also reported that the Bahrain Football Association threatened penalties and suspensions for those who “violated the law”, including athletes, administrators and coaches who participated in “illegal demonstrations” or any other act that aims to “overthrow the regime or insult national figures.” BNA said that the BFA had suspended clubs, noting that “the Bahrain FA stressed that these penalties were issued in accordance with the Investigative Committee’s decisions concerning all those who have offended our leadership and our precious Kingdom.”

A Bahraini newspaper, in another indication of the implementation of Nasser’s decree, quoted at the time Bahrain Table Tennis Association Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as saying that his group had decided to act against players who “offended the nation and its wise leadership.”

In his refusal in the last five years to discuss the allegations, Salman insisted that sports and politics was separate, a statement contradicted by BNA’s reporting and the fact that Bahrain’s ruling family keeps a tight rein on the country’s sports.

Since launching his presidential campaign, Salman has denied in interviews the establishment of the investigation committee and the assertion that he headed it but has yet to directly address the consistent BNA reporting. At no time, did Salman suggest that he objected as a matter of principle to the penalizing of athletes and executives or that he would not have accepted to chair the committee if it had been established. And that is what the real issue in the FIFA election is about. Does Salman have the moral rectitude, unblemished reputation and credibility to lead FIFA out of crisis and restore its credibility image? Draw your own conclusions.

The BNA reports are as close as one can get to a smoking gun. Add to that there is one player who is now in exile in Australia and thus not subject to the kind of pressures that those in Bahrain are exposed to. This player was falsely arrested and abused and Salman, according to the player, refused to lift a finger for him. Salman has never denied any of the BNA reports.

The human rights issues are allegations no self-respecting organization or candidate can ignore or simply dismiss. Whether true or not, they are allegations that need to be addressed fairly and squarely in chapter and verse. That should be the yardstick for judgement on whether Salman is a legitimate candidate or not. The problem is that FIFA says it does integrity checks on candidates and that Salman passed those checks. No one knows what those checks are, what criteria are applied and on what grounds decisions are taken. There is no reason for that process to be secretive and non-transparent.

Fact of the matter is that Salman has a way of dealing with the human rights allegations if he wanted to and that is the independent report by Cherif Bassiouni. This was an independent investigation into allegations of law enforcement brutality, abuse and torture during the 2011 popular revolt conducted by international jurists. They concluded that torture and abuse had happened. The government endorsed the report and its recommendations even if those have yet to be largely implemented.

Instead of using the Bassiouni report as cover to position himself, Salman has charged that the campaign against him was an effort to tarnish the image of Bahrain. In doing so, Salman not only identified himself with government policy but also positioned himself as an agent seeking to improve his country’s image. The fact that Salman’s presidency is at least in part designed to polish Bahrain’s tarnished image was evident in the moving last April of the AFC congress from Kuala Lumpur to Bahrain where Nasser featured as a prominent speaker. That is one reason why Salman has had to promise in recent days that if elected he would not move FIFA out of Zurich.

Salman’s handling of the issue is emblematic of his management style since having been elected as AFC president. Flat denials and the squashing of critical inquiries laced with a sense of hubris are the hallmarks of his secretive management style.

Salman also played a key role in squashing a 2012 independent audit of AFC finances that raised serious questions about possible bribery, non-transparency, tax evasion, and sanctions busting in the awarding to Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG) of a $1 billion master rights agreement. The audit by a PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) that constituted the basis for FIFA’s banning for life of former AFC president and FIFA executive committee member Mohammed Bin Hammam counselled the AFC to seek legal advice on potential civil and criminal charges and review its contract with Singapore-based World Sport Group.

AFC officials deny that Sheikh Salman or the group buried the audit. In a twist last year, the officials disclosed that in addition to the audit, PwC had also delivered a second report on proposed restructuring of the AFC. The officials said those recommendations had largely been implemented. In a reflection of the group’s lack of transparency and Salman’s management style, the disclosure was the first time in three years since the audit that the AFC referred to a second PwC report. The report was never made public nor was it clear what PwC recommendations were implemented. Disclosure of the existence of the report moreover did not explain why the recommendations of the audit have been ignored.

The only known time that the AFC took action with regard to the audit besides honouring FIFA’s banning of Bin Hammam was last year when it effectively fired its general secretary, Alex Soosay, for seeking to destroy documents relevant to the audit. Even then, the AFC portrayed Soosay’s dismissal as a voluntary resignation even if his departure followed my disclosure of a tape in which then financial director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong testified that Soosay had asked him to destroy documents. The fact that it took media pressure for Salman and the AFC to act three years after delivery of the audit says much about the Bahraini’s management style.

The PwC audit suggested that Soosay had authorized many of the payments on which it cast legal doubt. “Our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary and the Director of Finance. As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions. We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice,” the PwC report said. There has never been an acknowledgement by the AFC or Salman that those questionable transactions were being investigated.

Salman or for that matter Bin Hammam and Sheikh Ahmad are members of autocratic ruling families. They bring a sense of entitlement and arrogance to their management of international sports associations. They also strengthen the role of FIFA as well as the AFC in the Middle East as pillars of regional autocracy. In fact, Salman is the most prominent international soccer executive with a questionable human rights record but he’s not the only one.

Another is AFC Executive Committee member Major General Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi who is Commander-in-Chief of the Abu Dhabi police force. This is a police force that arrests critics of the government in secrecy who then often vanish for months before being hauled before court in trials that have been denounced by human rights groups. At least one uniformed officer of the Abu Dhabi police force in a gruesome incident in 2009 together with at least one prominent Emirati brutally tortured a grain dealer because of a $5,000 business dispute. The video is featured on You Tube. Salman has never questioned the appropriateness of having a representative of a police force with a dubious human rights record even if Al Romaithi was not its head at the time of the 2009 incident serve on his executive committee.

All of this is food for thought but holds out little hope that FIFA is capable of reforming itself and holding up universal values. It certainly is unlikely to do so under the possible leadership of Salman.

This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered at the Institute of Sports Science, Wuerzburg.