KUWAIT CITY: A lingering sports crisis in Kuwait that triggered international sanctions is seen as part of a power struggle in the Gulf state involving ruling family members and politicians, analysts say.
Over a year ago, world sports bodies led by the International Olympic Committee and world football’s FIFA suspended Kuwait over alleged government interference in sports for the second time since 2010.
According to world sports organizations, the suspension was due to legislation issued in 2014 and 2015 allowing the government to interfere in local sports federations and undermine the independence of the sports movement.
As a result, the wealthy emirate was barred from taking part in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Shooter Fehaid al-Deehani, who won a gold medal, the first ever by a Kuwaiti athlete at the Olympics, had to compete as an independent and was not allowed to carry his country’s flag due to the ban.
However, that could change after Kuwait’s new parliament — elected last month with opposition MPs taking nearly half the seats — called on the government “to do what is necessary to lift the suspension on sport”.
In a possible sign of progress, Information and Youth Minister Sheikh Salman Humoud Al-Sabah told MPs last week that the government was ready to sit down “with FIFA or any other side provided that does not breach Kuwait’s sovereignty or constitution”.
Two rival groups appear at the heart of the crisis in the emirate that has a population of 4.4 million, only around 30 percent of whom are nationals.
On one side stand Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Sabah, one of the most powerful men in world sport, his younger brother Talal, other brothers and supporters who control most of Kuwaiti sports clubs and federations.
Opposing them are the government, some other members of the ruling Al-Sabah family, Marzouk al-Ghanem — a senior member of a wealthy merchant family and speaker of parliament — and other supporters.
A neutral group appears to have emerged in the new parliament pushing for an end to the suspension.
“The problem of sports in Kuwait is that it is being used as a tool in the power struggle,” political analyst Nasser al-Abdali told Agence France-Presse.
“Groups within the ruling family are using sports in their internal disputes,” said Abdali, who heads the Kuwait Society for the Promotion of Democracy.
Huge public funds pumped into sports could also be a factor, according to Abdali.
The sports authority said last year that the government spent 400 million dinars ($1.3 billion) on sports in the past five years.
Sheikh Salman had directly accused “Kuwaitis in international sports” of causing the suspension through complaints they sent to world sports bodies.
Members of the previous pro-government parliament, dissolved in October, explicitly accused Sheikh Ahmad and his brothers of engineering the suspensions. They have repeatedly denied the allegations.
The old parliament passed legislation in June boosting the government’s influence in sports which was used by the government to dissolve the country’s Olympic committee, the football federation and several other federations, both headed by Sheikh Talal.
“The problem is that some (former) MPs and the government have passed legislation designed to bring down Sheikh Ahmad and his brothers from local sports,” leading Kuwaiti sports journalist Faisal al-Qanai said.
“Those laws are personal and violate international sports charters,” Qanai, vice president of International Press Sports Association, told Agence France-Presse.
Besides holding high-profile positions in the world of sports, including membership of the IOC executive committee and FIFA ruling council, Sheikh Ahmad, 53, is a senior member of the ruling family.
He is among dozens of ruling family members who qualify to ascend to the top post of emir in the future.
A nephew of the current emir, Sheikh Ahmad held several ministerial posts between 2001 and 2011 when he quit.
Local media reported that was the result of a power struggle with the then prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Sheikh Fahad’s cousin, who also resigned five months later.
“The main objective was to remove Sheikh Ahmad from the government and from the ruling hierarchy because he is powerful and highly competent,” said Qanai, who is a close associate of Sheikh Ahmad’s family.
New parliament, different view
Leading Kuwaiti sports critic Mutlaq Nassar however argues that the new laws do not contradict international sports charters.
“Legislation was introduced to reduce the influence of corrupt forces and reform the sports movement which was being misused for personal gains,” Nassar told Agence France-Presse.
Nassar said that people like Sheikh Ahmad exploited their influence in world bodies to suspend Kuwaiti sports.
Qanai however said that “all Kuwait needs to do is to amend the violating laws and the suspension will be lifted within 24 hours.”