Bahrain’s official Bahrain News Agency heralded the appointment as “adding to Sheikh Salman’s rich record of prestigious positions he has held at the Asian and international sport arenas, testifies to the global acclaim of the kingdom’s role in enhancing sport movement.”
The agency quoted Sheikh Salman as saying that his appointment would “enable him to reaffirm the capability of the kingdom’s cadres to hold such key international positions.”
The appointment comes as national soccer players are fighting in Bahrain courts charges brought against for peacefully demonstrating and despite the fact that other major sports institutions have steered clear of the Gulf island because of the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters seeking greater political freedom, an end to discrimination against Shiite Muslims and more economic opportunity.
Sheikh Salman played an important role in the crackdown as head of a committee that identified 150 soccer players, athletes and sports executives who had participated in the demonstrations. They were either arrested or fired from their positions.
Among them were three national soccer team players, including brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail. Alaa last month recounted in an interview with The Associated Press how he and his brother were arrested, abused and humiliated during the government’s brutal suppression of the protests.
Sheikh Salman’s involvement in the crackdown has privately prompted questions within the Asian Football Confederation because he is a frontrunner to succeed disgraced Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam as the organization’s president. The AFC in July postponed initiating the process of electing a new president to give Mr. Bin Hammam time to appeal a world soccer body FIFA ban for life on involvement in football because of his alleged engagement in bribery. AFC officials suggest privately that electing Sheikh Salman would send the wrong signal.
Mohamed Hubail was tried by a Bahraini security court and convicted to two years in prison, but later released pending his appeal after FIFA questioned the BFA about the crackdown.
Alaa’s case that has yet to go to court. He and the five other national team players have been barred from playing on the national team or in Bahrain’s domestic league.
The protests were part of the wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike in Syria and elsewhere the region, Bahrain succeeded to squash the protests with brute force. Thousands were detained and some 30 people were killed.
By including athletes in the crackdown, Bahrain effectively shot itself in its foot. Like other Gulf states, Bahrain sees sports as a vehicle to project itself on to the world stage. It succeeded in attracting the region's first Formula One race, the Bahrain Grand Prix, and in becoming part of this year’s Volvo Golf Champions European tours. Both events were however cancelled because of the protests.
Many of the affected soccer players are meanwhile trying to move on with their lives. National team defender Sayed Mohammed Adnan went into voluntary exile and has joined Australian A-League champion Brisbane Roar. Alaa recently signed a deal to play for an Omani football club.
His brother Mohammed is still looking for a place to go. He rejected an offer to return to Al Ahli because the club demanded that he sign a statement admitting to his crimes.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.