By James M. Dorsey
Next week’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidential elections designed to elect a leader to clean up two years of alleged financial mismanagement and unethical business conduct and polish the group’s tarnished image are increasingly marred by doubts that real reform is on the horizon, allegations of interference in the poll and controversy over the candidates’ track record.
The marring comes against a background of the AFC’s failure, despite efforts by reformers, to project sincerity in achieving transparency and accountability after its president, Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam, was banned for life from involvement in soccer because of unethical conduct in his management of the group’s finances and business affairs.
The group has failed so far to follow up on an internal PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) that almost a year ago recommended possible legal action against Mr. Bin Hammam and called for a review if not cancellation of the AFC’s foremost $1 billion contract to commercialize its rights.
The impression of lack of sincerity is cemented by the allegations of political interference and fears of bribery in the campaign of some candidates, a majority of which are tainted by their past association with Mr. Bin Hammam, as well as past allegations of wrongdoing as in the case of Worawi Makdudi of Thailand which he has successfully refuted and in Sheikh Salman’s failed 2009 election campaign in which he was defeated by Mr. Bin Hammam.
Sheikh Salman faces moreover assertions that his office identified athletes, including players for the Bahrain nation soccer team, who were arrested for their participation in anti-government protests, tortured and charged. Sheikh Salman has also been criticized for the fact that he has refused to denounce these alleged abuses of human rights.
The allegations of interference in the election are bolstered by the fact that three of the four candidates – Yousuf al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia – hail from the Middle East. Alliances and active support for the front runners, Sheikh Salman and Mr. Al Serkal, mirror the political line-up of Gulf states.
Kuwait publicly backs the Bahraini candidate, a reflection of the two countries frequent policy alignment with Saudi Arabia, versus the perceived Qatari backing for Mr. Al Serkal that groups the two states who often follow a more independent course.
Mr. Al Medlej, who has hinted that he may withdraw at the last minute, does not seem to have significant backing even from his own government. While his Gulf competitors were on the campaign trail in private planes, Mr. Medlej said he only recently had money for his campaign deposited in his account.
Besides campaigning for the AFC presidency, Sheikh Salman is competing with Qatar’s Hassan al-Thawadi for filling Mr Bin Hammam’s seat on the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA.
Sources close to the AFC argue that the new president, who will be in office for less than two years to complete the term of Mr. Bin Hammam, will have little time for reform. As a result, they say Asian political and soccer leaders are focused on the 2015 election. “It takes six months to settle into office, six months to consolidate and then he’ll have six months to campaign,” said one source.
The focus on 2015 explains why the Gulf has fielded three rather than one candidate. “It would have taken one call from the king of Saudi Arabia for the Emirati and other Gulf candidates to pull out. They could have played if they had wanted to play,” the source said. Saudi media quoted the country’s sports czar, Prince Nawaf bin Feisal, as predicting this week that a Saudi national would head the AFC two years from now.
Nevertheless, politics is impacting next week’s election. It hardly helps the AFC’s image that the public campaign of front runner Sheikh Salman has in the recent weeks been dominated by defense of his record during the brutal squashing two years ago of a popular uprising in Bahrain.
The allegations of interference in the election center on the endorsement of Sheikh Salman by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) headed by former Kuwaiti government minister, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah. Messrs Al Serkal and Al Medlej have denounced the OCA’s support as interference in the election.
The OCA was reported to have offered in Sheikh Salman’s failed 2009 campaign several AFC members financial incentives if they voted for him. News reports said OAC officials have accompanied Sheikh Salman on several of his current campaign stops in Asia.
Inside World Football, citing its own sources and Reuters, reported further that the OCA had built domestic pressure in China to persuade acting AFC President Zhang Jilong to drop his plans to run for office. Mr. Jilong, who headed the AFC’s finance committee under Mr. Bin Hammam, emerged as one of the Qatari’s strongest critics and initiated last year’s PwC audit. He was described as ash-faced when he announced several months ago at a private meeting the he was not a candidate in the AFC election.
Inside World Football further disclosed this week a letter by AFC general secretary Dato' Alex Soosay to the group’s 46 member associations asking them to remember their "ethical obligations" when casting their vote. The letter warned against "offering and accepting gifts and benefits; bribery; and conflicts of interests." Mr. Soosay went on to note that “it is the duty and obligation of the Confederation to prevent the introduction of improper methods and practices which might jeopardize the integrity of, or give rise to, the abuse of football…”
Sheikh Salman, a member of the Bahraini royal family, has denounced allegations that his office assisted in abuse of human rights as a “clear attempt to damage my personal reputation and to interfere with the AFC presidential elections.”
He has stopped short of parroting statements by the government that protesters demanding greater freedom and rights were instigated by Iran described by a Bahrain expert in the corridors of a recent conference in Manama as delusional. The government this weekend denounced thousands of protesters who exploited the Formula One Grand Prix to showcase their grievances as “terrorists.”
Bahrain this week accused the US State Department of “fuelling terror and terrorists” by charging in a report on Bahrain that "the most serious human rights problems included citizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention." The report criticized the "lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, medical personnel, teachers, and students, with some resulting in harsh sentences." It claimed that "discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, nationality, and sect persisted, especially against the Shia population" which makes up a majority in Bahrain, ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.
In a letter this week to AFC members, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) said that "in the two years since the uprising began, life has been anything but normal for Bahrain's football players. The actions taken against Bahrain's football players by the Bahrain Football Association, led by Sheikh Al-Khalifa, are hardly credible, are devoid of integrity, and fail to respect the personal rights of the players. As leader of the organization that led such abuses, Sheikh Al-Khalifa bears responsibility for what was done to these players. Yet, in response to recent questions about the arrest, detention, and abuse of Bahrain's football players, Sheikh Al-Khalifa abdicated any personal responsibility for the abuse. Sheikh Al-Khalifa's actions and attitude evidence a clear incompatibility with the AFC Code of Ethics.”
With the election shaping up as a close battle between Sheikh Salman and Mr. Al Serkal, the Emirati has emerged as the candidate with the most far-reaching program for reform of the AFC. He has nonetheless yet to convince proponents of reform that he would actually walk the talk. They note that his record as an AFC executive committee member under Mr. Bin Hammam does not serve as a credential.
Mr. Al Serkal has promised to publish “all allowances and benefits given to me by the confederation, and expenditure incurred by my office,” establish a whistle-blower hotline to encourage the exposure of wrongdoing, make all the AFC’s commercial contracts available to its members for scrutiny, and hire auditors to look at current agreements.”
At the bottom line, the AFC has so far lacked the political will to tackle many of the same issues that also confront FIFA which like the Asian and other regional soccer bodies have been scarred by years of scandal.
A study by three graduates of Ohio University's Sports Administration program laid out what needs to be done in FIFA that also apply to the AFC. Their recommendations, include enhanced financial governance and anti-corruption controls, a state-of-the-art anti-corruption compliance program, transformation of the ethics committee into an independent investigative body, establishment of a committee to determine executives’ and senior staffs’ salaries and benefits, creation of an election campaign finance system that bars private funding, and limitations on executives’ terms in office.”
“It is all up to the AFC Congress. The problem is some members follow certain people’s suggestions,” said one source close to the AFC.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog