KEIR RADNEDGE EXCLUSIVE —- Kuwait risks vanishing further beneath the sands of the sporting desert as the Olympic Council of Asia prepares to consider shifting its headquarters out of the Gulf state.
No decision is possible until the OCA council meets in Doha, Qatar, later this year but already this writer understands that a departure is being considered urgently and there will be no shortage of offers from eager prospective new hosts.
The issue is a subject for discussion behind the scenes in Sapporo, Japan, at this week’s chefs de mission seminar ahead of next February’s eighth Asian Winter Games.
An inevitable parting of the ways has been forced by the amalgam of a power struggle within the Kuwaiti ruling family, a bitter row over the last elections within the International Shooting Sports Federation and the promulgation of a contentious new sports law.
Caught in the middle is the 45-member OCA largely through the identity of long-time president Sheikh Ahmad Ah-Fahad Al-Sabah.
Sheikh Ahmad, a member of the ruling Kuwait dynasty, is on the wrong side of the domestic argument though he remains a powerful figure in international sport through his presidency of not only the OCA but also of the Association of National Olympic Committees and of Olympic Solidarity.
Since May last year the former head of international oil cartel OPEC has also been a member of the executive committee (now council) of the world football federation FIFA alongside his nominated choice as Asian football president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Kuwait.
The Middle East and surrounding region is the most geopolitically complex in the world; sport is enmeshed inextricably in covert and overt battles for influence in wider spheres.
Kuwait has fallen off the world sport stage amid allegations and accusations, denials and rebuttals, spin and counter-spin. Its pariah status, barring any late rapprochement, will be confirmed by its absence from the parade of nations at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Initial public indication that all was not well politically within the region arose in May 2013 on the eve of an AFC presidential election.
First the Kuwait FA complained that banned ex-AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam was pulling strings behind the scenes. Then candidate Yousuf Al Serkal, head of the United Arab Emirates FA, complained about Sheikh Ahmad’s own involvement and that of the OCA in support of Sheikh Salman – who ultimately won with an overwhelming majority.
Four months later Sheikh Ahmad played a persuasive role, again, in the election of Thomas Bach as new president of the International Olympic Committee.
The international arena has usually proved a more equable sphere of activity for Sheikh Ahmad than home ground. But not always.
In December 2014 Kuwait’s Sheikh Salman Al-Sabah was furious at being defeated by Mexico’s Olegario Vazquez Rana in the election of a new president for the International Shooting Sports Federation.
This particular Sheikh Salman, Kuwait’s Minister of Information and Minister of State for Youth Affairs, duly empowered the enactment of the controversial new sports law to address what he described as the “total decline” of sport in Kuwait.
Further trouble for Sheikh Ahmad erupted in April 2015 after he had to concede a public, televised apology to his uncle the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
Sheikh Ahmad had claimed that ex-PM Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and former speaker Jassem Mohammad Abdul-Mohsem Al-Karafi had plotted to topple the government and had conspired over money laundering and misuse of public funds.
The evidence he provided was based on computerised documents and film records which were dismissed by a court as fabrications. Hence Sheikh Ahmad went on on Kuwait television to deliver a formal, public apology not only to the two accused but to his uncle the Emir and to the Crown Prince.
The row was not considered as raising any doubts about Sheikh Ahmad’s roles within international sport. Indeed, a month later he was voted onto the FIFA exco and then was a significant voice in defending the IOC against a remarkable attack on Bach & Co from the then president of SportAccord, Marius Vizer.
Without doubt the alacrity and clarity of Sheikh Ahmad’s riposte to Vizer was a factor in the latter’s retreat and resignation.
Meanwhile trouble continued to build back home with the new sports law being judged by both IOC and FIFA as breaching statutes barring political interference in sports bodies. Last autumn FIFA suspended the Kuwait FA and the IOC suspended the national Olympic committee.
The IOC ban meant also that Kuwait was automatically suspended from the OCA whose headquarters it not only hosted but to which it had conceded diplomatic immunity.
Both FIFA and IOC expected that as has usually happened, faced with the prospect of double suspension from the World Cup and the Olympic Games, the government would take a step back and all would be well.
Not this time.
Kuwait’s National Assembly railed angrily against “the irresponsible stance by some clubs and unions with respect of boycott and suspension of sports activities” and the Sports Ministry not only rejected the IOC’s “unjust suspension” but blamed the OCA for sharing responsibility for the crisis.
Separately the state news agency, KUNA, reported that the cabinet had “withdrawn” consideration for the OCA’s plans to build plush new headquarters in Kuwait City.
Sheikh Ahmad, trying to distance himself from the row, said: “I’m very sad, upset. They [Kuwait] were facing this before the last Olympic Games and now they have made the same mistake again. I’m not involved in local sport. Politics in Kuwait has played more of a part in this than sport.”
Personal pressure was increasing. Last December the backlash from the court case caught up with Sheikh Ahmad again. A local court sentenced him to six months in jail for insulting the judiciary. Subsequently the sentence was overturned on appeal but it was a distraction he did not need.
Battle lines had been drawn.
The OCA stepped – perhaps unwisely – into the eye of the storm with a statement blaming “the recent introduction of sports laws which threaten the autonomy of sport in Kuwait” as having been introduced “in response to the outcome of the last International Shooting Sport Federation elections in December 2014.”
The ISSF also waded in, complaining: “This dispute began when ISSF President Olegario Vazquez Raña prevailed against the Kuwaiti Minister of Sports and Youth, Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Homud Al-Sabah, in the ISSF presidential election in December 2014.
“As a consequence the IOC suspended the recognition of the Kuwaiti Olympic Committee because of undue governmental interference in sports in Kuwait.”
Sheikh Salman had shown “little sensitivity for a democratic process, the autonomy of sports and ethical behaviour within an election process.”
Retaliation was inevitable.
In January this year Kuwait’s government sued Sheikh Ahmad and all its national Olympic committee members – including his brother the chairman, Sheikh Talal Al-Fahad – for $1.315bn compensation over the state’s international suspension.
As an afterthought it also sued the chairman and committee members of the Kuwaiti boxing and weightlifting organisations because they “impersonate the capacity of the chairman and executive members of the association without legal proof.”
Two attempts by the IOC to broker a sports law compromise ended in failure. Each time initial negotiations ended with the IOC believing it had deals, only for Kuwait to reject them.
FIFA, having postponed a decision on Kuwait’s suspension from its extraordinary congress in February to the ordinary congress in May, finally kicked Kuwait out of the World Cup qualifying competition.
In the meantime further complications arose from allegations of misuse of FIFA funds made by British MP Damian Collins, under parliamentary privilege. These were targeted at Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman and his ultimately vain bid for the FIFA presidency.
Sheikh Salman denied wrongdoing and, more intriguingly in the general Asian sports context, denied a claim that illicit offers had been made through OCA officials to the football federation of Kyrgyzstan, in support of his AFC power bid in 2013.
A statement said: “Sheikh Salman has and had no knowledge whatsoever of any inducements offered, or of any payments made by the Olympic Council of Asia to any football associations and absolutely no evidence has been forthcoming to show this to have been the case.”
This could be seen as an issue for the AFC’s own ethics committee. However this body remains inactive. The announcement of its creation by AFC president Sheikh Salman in 2013 has not been followed by membership appointments, suggesting its launch had been mere window-dressing for the sake of FIFA lawyers in far-distant Zurich.
The publicity concerning Kyrgyzstan, however, was more bad news for Sheikh Ahmad and the OCA while the source of the leaks – and their political purpose in the greater scheme of Asian sports politics – remained mired in quicksand.
One issue is clear: the Olympic Council of Asia can no longer continue to operate out of Kuwait. With diplomatic immunity withdrawn and staff already complaining of harassment, it is uncertain how long it can maintain its office and even whether it will be permitted to remove its own property to some new welcoming haven.
Sheikh Ahmad has big decisions to take . . . not least for the sake of the OCA.