Bahrain and Fifa: an own goal

There are smart dictators and foolish dictators. The smart ones stay out of the limelight and don't make waves internationally. The rest of the world then lets them get on with their dictating and doesn't usually interfere. The foolish ones, not content with having a country to run more or less as they please, try to become players on the world stage – which is where their problems often start.

In yesterday's election for the presidency of Fifa, Bahrain foolishly put forward a candidate from its ruling family – Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa – and lost. Regardless of the defeat itself, the effects of this attempt to gain prestige have been overwhelmingly negative, at least in terms of the kingdom's image. International media began probing the sheikh's background, thus reviving a half-forgotten controversy about his reported role in suppressing the 2011 uprising.

Of course, that sort of scrutiny would never be allowed inside Bahrain, but were the ruling family really so dumb as to imagine that international media would give Sheikh Salman an easy ride? It's difficult to picture a scenario where fielding him as a Fifa candidate would have actually enhanced Bahrain's reputation and it's probably fortunate that he did not win, since that would have only increased the pressure for him to answer questions and prolonged the kingdom's embarrassment.

There are other examples where Gulf regimes have been stung by courting international prestige and publicity. Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup, although successful, has proved very damaging because of questions about the possibly corrupt way that Qatar was chosen and about its subsequent exploitation of migrant workers constructing the stadiums. More recently, Saudi Arabia got itself elected to chair a UN human rights panel – which, as anyone could have foreseen, prompted dozens of newspaper articles about the kingdom's appalling human rights record.

Bahrain seems to have gone out of its way to be associated with Fifa and its erstwhile president, Sepp Blatter, even after it was obvious to almost everyone that Fifa was one of the most corrupt and scandal-ridden international bodies. Last April, just a month before he was re-elected as Fifa's president for a fifth consecutive term, Blatter visited Bahrain where he was received by the king. According to the government news agency, the king "commended" Blatter's efforts to promote football.

Likewise, the prime minister "lauded the key role played by Fifa, under the presidency of Joseph Blatter" and "praised Fifa's role in enhancing efforts to promote the game of football and consolidate its noble message".

Blatter in Bahrain, April 2015

Blatter, according to the news agency, responded by congratulating the prime minister on his "far-sighted visions and statesmanship" and "his landmark achievements in various fields, which entitled Bahrain to reach world levels".

Ten months later, with Blatter suspended amid criminal investigations, Sheikh Salman sought to replace him as Fifa's head. Inevitably, this gave rise to questions about Sheikh Salman's suitability for the job – questions which focus largely, though by no means entirely, on government reprisals against Bahraini football clubs, footballers and athletes during the uprising in 2011. The issues are discussed in detail by Owen Gibson in an article for the Guardian and in a post on James Dorsey's blog, "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer".

Sheikh Salman has responded to this with a mixture of denials (including denials of things previously reported by the government news agency as fact) and threats of legal action. What he has so far refused to do is address the issues raised in a serious and transparent way.

This is symptomatic of a broader problem with Bahrain's approach to reputation management – the idea that international critics can be silenced by a combination of expensive PR firms and lawyers rather than addressing the things that give rise to criticism. 
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 27 February 2016