U.S. Gulf politics, the FIFA presidency and Bahraini sheikh who wants the job

If Sunil Gulati was Michel Platini and Barack Obama was Nicolas Sarkozy, U.S. Soccer might be voting for Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa for FIFA president. But Gulati isn't Platini and Obama isn't Sarkozy, and Gulati won't be seeking out Obama's advice on who to vote for the next FIFA president who will be elected on Feb. 26.

Skeikh Salman, who suddenly finds himself the favorite to become the next FIFA president following Platini's FIFA suspension, faces an integrity check before his campaign moves forward, but even if he passes it's hard to imagine that Skeikh Salman fits the mold of a reform-minded candidate whom Gulati, mum about who he supports, could back.

As you may remember, Platini famously switched his vote from the USA to Qatar for the host of the 2022 World Cup after being summoned by Sarkozy, then-French president, to the Elysee Palace for dinner with the crown prince (now emir) of Qatar, Tamin bin Haman al-Thani, in November 2010. Qatar Airways just happened to have a $16 billion deal with Airbus for 80 A350 XWBs that saved the French aircraft manufacturer. Throw in sweeteners like massive Qatari investment in French soccer via Paris St. Germain and BeIN Sport, and you could imagine how the soirée might have ended.

A case could be made that Bahrain is of even more important strategic interest to the USA than Qatar was to France. Bahrain, the Persian Gulf island of 1.3 million inhabitants, is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which has been conducting strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. That relationship seems to have trumped concerns about human rights violations in Bahrain as the U.S. State Department recently lifted its ban on selling or transferring certain arms to Bahrain.

Some more background: The Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Bahrain is now a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, but democracy was put to the test during the Arab Spring in 2011. The Khalifas are Sunnis, and protests by the Shia Muslim majority led to a violent crackdown by the Bahraini government, backed by Saudi military fearful of the spread of reform movements. That's where Sheikh Salman comes in.

Bahraini human rights groups have accused Sheikh Salman as head of the Bahrain Football Association, the government's general secretary of youth and sport and a member of the ruling royal family of helping to identify athletes involved in the protests. The Associated Press reported in 2011 that more than 150 athletes, coaches and referees were jailed after a special committee, headed by Sheikh Salman, picked them out in photos of protests. They included six Bahraini national team players. In addition, six Shiite soccer clubs were fined $20,000 each and suspended from the national league.

The claims, which have dogged Sheikh Salman for four years, were the subject of an ESPN documentary, but he called them "nasty lies," reiterating his position in an interview with BBC Sport on Tuesday, a day after he entered the race for FIFA president.

"I cannot deny something that I haven't done," the 49-year-old Sheikh Salman said. "Such accusations are not just damaging, it's really hurting. Some people have agenda on their table."

Just what Sheikh Salman thinks he hasn't done is not clear, but it's quite evident that such an investigation committee was formed "to look into into violations committed by some of those who affiliate to the sport movement during the deplorable events witnessed by Kingdom of Bahrain recently,” and as the Guardian reported, Sheikh Salman was named to lead the investigation.

This isn't the first time Sheikh Salman has had to address the accusations. In 2013, he was named president of the Asian Football Confederation, then in chaos following the ouster of Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam two years earlier on corruption charges related to his attempt to buy the votes of members of the Caribbean Football Union with bags of cash for his FIFA presidential bid against Sepp Blatter.

“I would like to reiterate," Sheikh Salman said in 2013, "that in my capacity as the president of the Bahrain Football Association I have always been committed to manage, control and develop our game independently and autonomously without any kind of outside interference. I can assure anyone that the BFA is being guided according to the highest possible governance standards of integrity and transparency -- fully in line with the AFC and FIFA statutes, and no action has been taken under my direction against any member of the football community.”

FIFA's electoral rules require that the investigatory chamber of FIFA's ethics committee conduct an integrity check of Salman and the other seven candidates for FIFA president within 10 days from Monday. The reports will be forwarded to the FIFA's electoral committee, which will decide if the candidates are eligible to run for president.

Candidates are asked to fill out a form stating what crimes they have been convicted of, what disciplinary action they have had taken against them by sports bodies for ethics violations and what conflicts of interest they have. They are also reminded -- the great catch-all -- that they are subject to FIFA's code of ethics.

While most of the attention has related to Sheikh Salman's activities during the 2011 protests, his record as AFC president suggests his record on integrity and transparency might not be as good as he promised it would be in his AFC election bid two years ago. Bin Hammam had operated the AFC like his personal cash register, co-mingling funds from moneys from the confederation and his business interests back in Qatar and using them to pay bribes to seemingly anyone in soccer who asked for a hand out.

An audit of AFC finances by a PricewaterhouseCooper resulted in FIFA’s banning Bin Hammam for life -- he had, believe it or not, been let off the hook for his $40,000 a head cash caper he cooked up with Jack Warner in the Caribbean -- but James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who has written extensively about Asian soccer politics, suggests, Sheikh Salman "played a key role in squashing" the audit that raised serious questions about possible bribery, non-transparency and tax evasion and Sheikh Salman's "secretive management style bodes ill for reform of FIFA should he win the February 26 presidential election."

We'll know shortly if Sheikh Salman is even a candidate.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications