[Analytics] Red card for Asian football’s Sheikh leader

Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa in a February 28, 2018 photo. Photo: AFP/Haidar Mohammed Ali

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Hakeem Al-Araibi’s recent release from a Bangkok immigration prison may have ended the refugee footballer’s fear of being persecuted if deported to his home Bahrain, but when his plane touched down in Australia it did not bring the saga to an end. John Duerden specially for the Asia Times.

The global controversy that swirled over Al-Araibi’s detention, based on an Interpol red alert issued for his arrest, has put a spotlight on Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa’s dual role as president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and a prominent member of Bahrain’s ruling royal family.

As Asian football’s leading official, Salman is tasked with looking after the interests of all players active within the athletic confederation, including a commitment to respect and promote players’ rights.

But those statues were openly compromised with Salman appearing to act more as a Bahraini royal than AFC president, as Bahrain pressed Thailand to deport Al-Araibi to Manama despite his United Nations-recognized status as a refugee in Australia.

Al-Araibi, who had fled to Australia in 2014, was given political asylum two years later. He has claimed he would be tortured, or worse, if returned to Bahrain. He had been outspoken in his criticism of Salman, accusing him of being involved in the arrest of athletes during Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and 2012.

Bahraini football player Hakeem al-Araibi while being held in a Thai immigration detention facility. Photo: Facebook

At the time, there were reports of more than 200 football players and other athletes who were arrested, interrogated, and, many claim, tortured after participating in anti-government protests. Salman, then president of the Bahrain Football Association, denies accusations that he helped identify the players to authorities.

Bahrain claims that Al-Araibi vandalized a police station during the tumult, charges he denies as he was on the field playing in a televised football game at the time of the incident. The player claims that he was tortured after his arrest; he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia for the alleged crime after seeking asylum in Australia.

The process to extradite him to Bahrain began on November 27, when he was detained in Bangkok as he entered Thailand on honeymoon. Interpol had issued a red alert for his arrest but later withdrew the global arrest order when the controversy mounted.

Former Australian international footballer Craig Foster led an energetic and ultimately successful global campaign to bring Al-Araibi back to his adopted home in Melbourne, where he plays for semi-professional club Pascoe Vale.

Foster, who initially stood for election in 2018 to become chairman of the board of Football Federation Australia before withdrawing, believes that the football world should rethink its attitude and approach to its leaders after the Al-Araibi episode.

“This entire crisis in which a young man’s life was in jeopardy highlights the complete lack of implementation of a code of ethics or governance standards,” Foster, who visited the player in Bangkok and traveled to FIFA’s headquarters in Switzerland to urge the governing body to do more to facilitate the player’s release, told Asia Times.

Protesters hold a banner depicting victims of Bahrain’s anti-regime protests against Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa at an extraordinary FIFA Congress in Zurich on February 26, 2016. Photo: AFP/Olivier Morin

“There are considerable and serious questions to be answered by both the current AFC president regarding his complicity in the 2011-12 crackdown on athletes and to his involvement in Hakeem’s incarceration and near refoulement to Bahrain,” he said.

The AFC was publicly silent for most of the 67 days that Al-Araibi was behind bars, only issuing a statement on January 29 when confederation Vice President Praful Patel called for the player’s release in response to the global furor. Al-Araibi was personally greeted by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison upon his release from Thailand and return to Australia, underscoring the incident’s high-level diplomatic fallout.

The AFC declared in January that Salman could not be involved in the case as he had recused himself from matters involving the AFC’s West Zone region to avoid accusations of conflicts of interest. But that did little to assuage his critics.

James Dorsey, an expert in Middle Eastern football politics and senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Salman taking himself out of the equation did little to answer questions that still surround his alleged role in repression during the Arab Spring.

“It does not reflect well on Sheikh Salman and his rejection of assertions that he was associated with the penalizing of athletes and sports executives allegedly involved in the 2011 popular protests in Bahrain,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey believes that these issues should have been examined before Salman became AFC president in 2013. “Sheikh Salman should have only been allowed to assume office once a thorough and independent investigation had cleared him.”

Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, then a candidate for FIFA President, addresses the audience during the Extraordinary FIFA Congress 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland, February 26, 2016. Photo: DPA via AFP Forum/Patrick Seeger

Foster and others want a new investigation into his background and they are leading calls that have been echoed by such figures as Professional Footballers Australia chief John Didulica for Salman to be barred from seeking re-election to the position on April 6.

“There is no way Salman can contemplate continuing to purport to be an authentic holder of high office in the game,” Foster said. “Football needs to decide how low the bar is to be set. And, in any event, Salman will still be unable to reach even the lowest threshold.”

Salman is also a senior vice president at FIFA and ran for its presidency in 2016, only to lose the election to Italy’s Gianni Infantino. It remains to be seen whether Salman will continue to enjoy the support of Asia’s federations when they gather to vote in April’s pivotal election.

Whether the Al-Araibi episode and the global outcry it elicited will motivate change in how the region’s football is governed and led is yet to be seen.

“It raises questions about figures with political connections, as well as members of ruling families, becoming executives of national, regional or global sports governance,” said Dorsey. “The case puts human rights center stage and marks a milestone in resisting efforts by autocratic regimes to unilaterally impose their will.”

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