By Paul Nicholson
December 7 – The UAE are officially putting forward a candidate for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidency of the regional confederation whose elections take place April 6 in Kuala Lumpur next year.As is Qatar. Both nominations came in before yesterday’s midnight deadline last night.
Major General Mohammed Khalfan Al-Rumaithi is Commander-in-Chief of Abu Dhabi Police and member of the Executive Council of the emirate of Abu Dhabi will take on incumbent president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. They will be joined by Qatari Saud Al Mohannadi, a vice president of the Qatar FA and an AFC executive committee member.
The presidential campaign line-up is now an intriguing mix of geo-political and football objectives reflecting a wider regional political objective and stand-off with the blockade of Qatar that is infecting the world of football politics. It is a situation that both the AFC and its president Shaikh Salman have warned against allowing to happen.
Al-Rumaithi is also the UAE’s chairman of the General Authority of Sport, the UAE FA and a member of the AFC’s executive committee.
The UAE, which in the politics of the Gulf states is tightly aligned with the Saudi Arabian FA on what have become inter-linked football and geo-political issues, this month hosts the Club World Cup and in January the 2019 Asian Cup.
Qatar in 2022 hosts the World Cup and is looking to protect its position from aggressors – particularly Saudi Arabian and increasingly the UAE who appear increasingly to be their proxy.
Al-Mohannadi is no stranger to the geo-politics of global football. He was banned by FIFA from running in the election to join the FIFA Council in 2016. This caused outrage across the AFC who protested by ending their confederation congress in Goa after less than 30-minutes and preventing the elections of their members to FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s new FIFA Council and world order.
Al-Mohannadi was later given a one-year ban by FIFA that was quickly rescinded as FIFA came under intense criticism for using their ethics process as a political tool.
It is Al-Rumaithi’s turn now to enter the geo-political landscape as a headliner and questions will be asked for who he is headlining.
Saudi Arabia had its own ambition to hold the presidency of the AFC though it is increasingly being seen as a pariah in global football circles – not just over the political blowback of the state sanctioned killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, but also because of its un-waivering refusal to act on the piracy of the beoutQ sports channel that undermined the sports rights business in the region.
The Saudis had originally put forward Adel Ezzat who has very little track record in football having only emerged in Saudi in 2016 as FA president before quickly standing down and pursuing wider regional ambition. He was later joined by former playing legend Sami Al Jaber as a potential candidate. Neither have made it on to the ballot list.
Now the Saudis will align their influence with the UAE. That is not necessarily a positive forAl-Rumaithi’s campaign.
An example of this political alignment was seen at the October 2018 AFC Congress in a vote on statute reform.
The only contested statute change was around the proposal for candidates for the office of the AFC President to be nominated by at least three Member Associations – but not necessarily by the Member Association they represent.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia had protested that the rule that nominations had to be from the candidate’s home association should not be changed, sparking speculation that they could bring geo-political pressure on Bahrain not to nominate Shaikh Salman.
The AFC members voted overwhelmingly 42-4 to approve both statute changes, a resounding message to the Saudi-UAE axis of geo-political ambition.
That Salman also has letters of support from 40 national associations for his candidacy is also an indication of where the voting balance currently sits. But even with the humiliating congress vote going against them and knowing that Salman is a popular president, the UAE-Saudi axis still put forward their own man.
Qatar’s move is most likely a counter measure to protect their own position – a UAE-Saudi win would inevitably be uncomfortable for them, and ultimately for world football for the obvious reasons. This is an election race that has wider implications and political objectives than just running the AFC confederation – and sadly so.
The focus of international football will be in the UAE this month and next, with the Club World Cup and the Asian Cup. This is Al-Rumaithi’s backyard where he will have plenty of opportunity to lobby for votes. But there should also be some pretty good football played, particularly at the expanded 24-team Asian Cup, and the UAE have a pretty competitive team. Lets hope the focus remains on what they can do on the pitch in what is shaping up to be an exciting football battle for regional playing honours.
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