Kuwait’s sporting crisis hides succession issues

Sunday 25/12/2016
Kuwaiti members of parliament

The sporting crisis that has gripped Kuwait for months is part of a wider domestic political strug­gle that could define the future of the country for decades, a Kuwaiti source speaking on the condition of anonymity said.

According to the source, the struggle relates to what will happen when Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 85, is succeeded by Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al- Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

“Sheikh Nawaf does not enjoy the same historical and familial credibility as enjoyed by Sheikh Sabah, which means that whoever becomes the new crown prince un­der (Nawaf) will likely play a pivotal role in the country,” added the Ku­waiti source.

“This role will be much greater than the role of crown prince under the current emir, who dominates political decision-making.”

The main figure tied to the sport­ing crisis, which has resulted in small Gulf state’s suspension from the International Olympic Commit­tee (IOC) and global football body FIFA, is Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who is consid­ered a possible choice to be the next crown prince.

Sheikh Ahmad is one of the lead­ing people in Kuwaiti sports, along with his younger brother Talal, other brothers and supporters who control most Kuwaiti sports clubs and federations. Sheikh Ahmad is the president of the Olympic Coun­cil of Asia, a member of the FIFA Council and has held numerous senior governmental posts, includ­ing Oil minister and director of Ku­wait’s National Security Agency.

Local sources said Sheikh Ahmad also has ties to numerous Islam­ist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that are seeking a stronger role in Kuwait. Kuwait’s latest parliament includes the re­turn of an Islamist-dominated op­position that had boycotted previ­ous elections.

Sheikh Ahmad has been a major critic of laws introduced over the past few years that grant greater state control of national sports as­sociations. World sporting bodies view such laws as illegitimate and accused the government of “inter­fering” in sports but Kuwaiti offi­cials say such laws aim to combat corruption and increase oversight.

Sheikh Ahmad and those around him are being opposed by other members of the Al-Sabah family along with parliamentary Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim. Kuwaiti Min­ister of Information and Youth Sheikh Salman al-Homoud al-Sa­bah directly accused “certain Ku­waitis in international sports” of causing the suspension by making complaints to sports bodies.

“The problem with sport in Ku­wait is that it has begun to be used as one of the weapons in the fight against power,” Kuwaiti political analyst Nasser al-Abdali said.

Abdali, head of the Kuwaiti Soci­ety for the Advancement of Democ­racy, said the sporting crisis that re­sulted in Kuwait being disqualified from the 2016 Olympics has deep political roots.

“This crisis has become a pres­sure point in Kuwaiti politics and has even pushed members of the new parliament to issue a non-binding resolution during its first session calling on the government to do what is necessary to lift Ku­wait’s international suspension,” he said.

Opposition members of parlia­ment have called for an emergency session to debate the country’s sus­pension from international sports and allow Kuwait’s football team to take part in qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup. MPs have submitted a draft law calling for the scrapping of all laws that would prevent Ku­wait from taking part in interna­tional sports competitions.

Sheikh Salman said the govern­ment was prepared to meet with the IOC, FIFA and other world sporting bodies to settle the issue as long as it does not breach the Kuwaiti con­stitution or sovereignty.

The ban was a major issue in Ku­wait’s recent elections, with many voters expressing concern about how this would affect the country’s burgeoning sports industry. Gov­ernment figures show that Kuwait has spent $1.3 billion on sports in the past five years. Some political analysts warned that some of that money may have been reappropri­ated.

“There are huge amounts of money that are being pumped into sports, some of which is used in politics,” Abdali acknowledged.