Powerful Kuwaiti official resigns over FIFA bribery scandal

Sunday 07/05/2017

Questions. Former President of the Olympic Council of Asia Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah speaking during a news conference. (AP)

London- The FIFA bribery scandal claimed another casu­alty in Kuwait’s powerful Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, considered one of the world’s most influential sports officials.

The resignation of Sheikh Ahmad, who remains head of the Olympic Council of Asia, is tied to one of the football world’s biggest corruption investigations, stemming from allegations in a US federal court that the sheikh bribed FIFA voters.

During court hearings April 27 in New York, FIFA Audit Committee member Richard Lai, a US citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to ac­cepting nearly $1 million in bribes. Court proceedings indicated that figure includes $850,000 from Ku­waiti officials, which Lai said was intended to buy influence and re­cruit other Asian football officials to also accept bribes.

Court documents did not name Sheikh Ahmad but clearly de­scribed his official position.

“Co-Conspirator #2 was a high-ranking official of FIFA, the Kuwait Football Association (KFA) and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA),” a recently released US Department of Justice document said.

The same document stated: “One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Con­spirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen can­didates.”

Lai received at least $770,000 from 2009-14 in “wire transfers from accounts in Kuwait controlled by Co-Conspirator #3 or his assis­tants at the OCA,” the documents claim.

Co-Conspirator #3 is believed to be Husain al-Musallam, first vice-president of FINA, the international swimming federation, and Sheikh Ahmad’s right-hand man, it was re­ported.

Sheikh Ahmad denied the allega­tions but stepped down from his position eight days before voting for the Asian election for FIFA seats was to take place.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract atten­tion from the upcoming AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA Congresses,” Sheikh Ahmad said in a statement. “Therefore, after care­ful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions.”

Kuwaiti sources said Sheikh Ah­mad expressed privately that US and British officials investigating the bribery case were not focusing on him specifically but rather on how Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.

During court testimony, Lai said that he accepted $100,000 from the then-Asian Football Conference’s head, who was eventfully banned from football, a reference to for­mer AFC President Mohammed Bin Hammam, from Qatar.

Bin Hammam, a former can­didate for FIFA president, was banned for life by FIFA a few days after resigning over allegations he bribed members of the Caribbean Football Union.

Bin Hammam testified that he first contacted Lai in 2011 over sup­port for his run for the FIFA presidency. Lai told the court that he did not do any work for the funds he received.

Lai said he began to receive funds from Kuwaiti officials in 2009 when the president of the Kuwait Football Association asked for his help in limiting Bin Hammam’s influ­ence, an admission by the former FIFA official of playing both sides.

Kuwaiti media were very cau­tious in their coverage of the scan­dal; however members of the Kuwaiti National Assembly demanded an investigation.

Sheikh Ahmad is a leading fig­ure in Kuwaiti sports, along with his younger brother, Sheikh Talal, other brothers and supporters who control most Kuwaiti sports clubs and federations. He is considered a possible choice to be the next crown prince; however it remains to be seen how much the latest scandal has derailed that possibility.