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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tehran funeral of acclaimed Iranian soccer player turns into anti-government protest

The funeral of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned Tuesday into a mass protest against the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, according to an Iranian soccer fan who participated in the protest.
A fan waves a photo of the defender, Nasser Hejazi, at he entrance to Azadi Stadium in Tehran (Source: France 24)

Writing on the website of France 24, the soccer fan identified only as Milad said that tens of thousands attended the funeral ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Milad said in a rare occurrence some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony. Iran bans women from stadiums in accordance with its strict segregation of genders in public places.
Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April publiclyto task for Iran’s gaping income difference and budgetary measure which hit the poorest the hardest.
The mourners also shouted "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore".
 
Iran has largely been spared the kind of mass anti-government protests sweeping other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Iranian authorities briefly suspended professional soccer matches in February to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point during celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Miladi said the anti-government chants prompted authorities to bury Mr. Hejazi’s body as quickly as possible. Security forces took Mr. Hejazi’s body shortly after the chanting began to Tehran’s famous Behsht Zahra cemetery with tens of thousands following the body to its burial place, he reported.
“The authorities were in such a hurry that they nearly buried the body before the family arrived,” he said.
Mourners in the cemetery shouted “Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it’s your turn Khameni!” in reference to ousted Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali and Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Hejazi was 62 when he died earlier this week of lung cancer. He played 62 times for Iran’s national team as well as for crowned Teheran club Esteghlal FC. He was named in 2000 the 20th century’s second best defender by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Mr. Hejazi tried to run for president as an independent candidate in Iran’s 2005 elections, but was forced by authorities to withdraw. 
“Our chants were clearly anti-government slogans,” Miladi wrote.

Big corporate sponsors, chagrined at corruption scandal, urge FIFA to reform


FIFA President Sepp Blatter displays the FIFA booklet 'My Game is Fair Play' as he addresses a news conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich. (File photo)

FIFA President Sepp Blatter displays the FIFA booklet 'My Game is Fair Play' as he addresses a news conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich. (File photo)
Corporate sponsors of world soccer body FIFA, in a serious blow to the organization as it opens it general assembly Tuesday amid the worst corruption scandal in more than a century, have expressed concern at president Sepp Blatter’s handling of the crisis.

The sponsors’ concern could threaten FIFA’s financial situation and comes as Mr. Blatter stands as the sole candidate in a presidential election scheduled for Wednesday. Marketing rights accounted for $227 million of FIFA’s $1 billion turnover in 2009.

Mr. Blatter, who is seeking a fourth term emerged as the only candidate after Mohammed Bin Hammad, the head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), withdrew his candidacy last Sunday hours before FIFA suspended him and three other officials on suspicion of bribery.
Sponsors warned that the corruption scandal in which nine of FIFA’s 24 executive committee members are suspected of corruption, bribery and improper behavior related to the awarding last December of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar was hurting the beautiful game. Two executive committee members were banned last year after they were taped by British newspaper The Sunday Times soliciting bribes.

“The allegations being raised are distressing and bad for the sport. We have every expectation that FIFA will resolve this situation in an expedient and thorough manner,” Coca-Cola said in a statement.

Adidas warned earlier that the negative publicity as a result of Mr. Blatter’s handling of the crisis was “neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners.” 
Emirates Airlines said it was "disappointed" by the crisis engulfing FIFA.
Mr. Blatter acknowledged at an acrimonious news conference that FIFA’s image has been damaged by the crisis, but denied that the organization was in crisis, saying instead that it faced “some difficulty.”

Mr. Blatter rejected calls by the British government and others, including the English Football Association, for a postponement of the organization’s presidential election until the crisis is resolved. FIFA expects its investigation of the scandal to be completed in July. Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, and the other officials were suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. The outcome is expected to be disclosed in July.

Qatar returned this week to the scandal’s center stage with Mr. Blatter and FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke defending the integrity of Qatar’s successful World Cup bid. Mr. Valcke denied that an email he sent to North American and Caribbean soccer chief Jack Warner, who was suspended alongside Mr. Bin Hammam, alleged that Qatar has won its bid with bribery.

Mr. Valcke said his statement in the mail that Qatar had “bought” the world cup referred to the Gulf state’s financial muscle not the way it waged its bid campaign.

Qatar has denied any wrongdoing. Mr. Blatter said there was “no issue” with the awarding of the world’s biggest sports event to Russia and Qatar.

Referring to Mr. Warner, who released Mr. Valcke’s mail, Mr. Blatter said that he would not deal with “people who want to create problems.”

Mr. Warner is suspected of having organized a Caribbean Football Union (CFU) meeting in Trinidad earlier this month at which Mr. Bin Hammam allegedly paid CFU members $40,000 each in exchange for their votes in the presidential election.

Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner have denied the allegations. Mr. Bin Hammam charged that the corruption allegations constituted trumped up assertions designed to force him to withdraw from the presidential race.

The FIFA ethics committee cleared Mr. Blatter on Sunday of charges that he had been aware of the Trinidad payments, but had failed to report them. The FIFA boss nonetheless was forced to defend himself against allegation that he had won the support of CONCACAF, the North American and Caribbean association headed by Mr. Warner, by donating to it $1 million as well as computers. Mr. Blatter described the gift as legitimate FIFA support for poorer soccer associations.

Unions Press Qatar On Inhuman Labor Conditions


Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup is being challenged on multiple fronts with trade unions demanding that the Gulf state prove that migrant workers building infrastructure for the tournament are not subject to inhuman conditions.

The focus on labour conditions comes as Qatar is fending off mounting allegations that it employed bribery to win its World Cup bid and days after Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national and senior world soccer executive, was suspended by world football body FIFA on suspicion of corrupt practices.

In a report released in advance of this week’s International Labour Conference in Geneva, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union, and Building Workers International (BWI), charged that the working and living conditions of mostly Asian migrant labour being used to build nine stadiums in 10 years as Qatar seeks to be the first Arab country to host the World Cup are unsafe and unregulated.

The unions called on FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Qatar’s FIFA delegate Mohamed bin Hammam to rectify these conditions.
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“A huge migrant labour force, with very little rights, no access to any unions, very unsafe practices and inhuman living conditions will be literally putting their lives on the line to 
deliver the 2022 World Cup,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow ITUC, said in a statement.

BWI secretary general Ambet Yuson charged that Qatar’s “ability to deliver the World Cup is totally dependent on severe exploitation of migrant labour, which we believe to be barely above forced labour conditions.”

Qatar beat the US, Australia, South Korea and Japan to win the 2022 World Cup at a ceremony hosted in Zurich in December. The country will invest $88 billion in infrastructure for the games, according to Enrico Grino, Qatar National Bank’s assistant general manager and head of project finance.

As part of its bid, Qatar pledged to build nine stadiums and refurbish three others. Each will use solar-powered cooling technology in a country where summer temperatures rise as high as 50 degrees Celsius. 

Arab soccer officials and media rally around Bin Hammam


Arab soccer officials and media rallied Monday around suspended, one-time world soccer body FIFA presidential candidate Mohammed Bin Hammam, a day after the organization’s ethics committee decided to launch a full-fledged investigation into allegations that he and three other officials had engaged in bribery to garner support for his candidacy.

Arab anger was reflected on the Qatari stock exchange as stocks declined amid fears that FIFA could cancel last year’s executive committee vote that awarded the Gulf state the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Investor fears were sparked by an email sent by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcker to North American and Caribbean soccer boss Jack Warner asserting that Qatar had bought its winning bid. Mr. Warner is one of the three officials besides Mr. Bin Hammam who was suspended by the ethics committee. Mr. Valcker’s email fuelled mounting allegations that Qatar had employed bribery in its World Cup bid campaign and suspicions that Mr. Bin Hammam would have had to have been at least aware of, if not a party to the corrupt practice.

The suspension of Mr. Bin Hammam, who has close ties to the Qatari royal family, casts a further shadow over the Gulf state’s successful bid. A series of revelations in British newspaper The Sunday Times allege that Qatar paid two FIFA executive committee members for their votes and discussed deliberately circumventing FIFA bidding rules.

Qatar furiously denounced allegations of wrongdoing and said it would welcome an independent investigation. That may no longer be enough with critics of the awarding of the World Cup to the Gulf state already sharpening their knives.

Mr. Bin Hammam has condemned the ethics committee’s decision to suspend him and said that he would appeal it.

The Qatari national, who headed the Asian Football Confederation, is suspected of having sought to buy the votes of members of the Caribbean Football Union at a meeting in Trinidad earlier this month. Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials have denied the allegations.

If found guilty, Mr. Bin Hammam and the others could be expelled from FIFA.

Mr. Bin Hammam is being replaced as AFC chief until the conclusion of the investigation by senior AFC vice president Zhang Jilong of China.

Middle Eastern anger was further fuelled by the committee’s decision that FIFA President Sepp Blatter had no obligation to report knowledge he may have had about the alleged bribery because his knowledge would have been about intent rather than a committee breach of FIFA’s code of ethics.

The committee decision paved the way for Mr. Blatter to stand as the sole candidate for a fourth term as FIFA president in elections scheduled for Wednesday.

Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before Sunday’s committee hearing called to determine whether charges that Mr. Bin Hammam had paid Caribbean football leaders paid $40,000 each to back his now-abandoned presidential bid.

Egypt’s Al-Gomhuria compared Mr. Blatter to ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarakm calling him a "sly fox who cannot be easily hunted.''

AFC vice president Yousuf al-Serkal, a UAE ally of Mr. Bin Hammam repeated earlier remarks that the charges against the Qatari were trumped up to force him out of the FIFA presidential race, a view widely shared by Arab soccer officials and media.

Arab criticism of the ethics committee decision focused on the fact that he was suspended even though the committee emphasized that it was not pronouncing whether Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials were guilty or not. The committee said it had merely concluded that there was the appearance of an infringement that needed to be further investigated.

Yemen’s ruling GPC stands to win with and without President Saleh

Mr. Saleh is showing no inclination to leave office before his term ends in 2013. (File photo)
Mr. Saleh is showing no inclination to leave office before his term ends in 2013. (File photo)
Amid talk in the Yemeni capital Sana’a about how long President Ali Abdullah Saleh can cling to power, one thing seems certain: not much will really change if and when he goes.

Deep divisions among his opponents are likely to ensure that Mr. Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) will retain power whether or not the president is around to lead it. GPC’s positioning is also enhanced by divisions within the armed forces with key units commanded by members of the president’s family loyal to the president. The split in the military has moreover deprived Yemen of a powerful institution that like in the case of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could tell Mr. Saleh authoritatively that it is time to go.

As a result, Mr. Saleh is showing no inclination to leave office before his term ends in 2013. He has several times backed out of a deal negotiated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would have eased him out of office in exchange for immunity against prosecution.


Yemen is meanwhile rapidly descending into chaos and anarchy as a result of Mr. Saleh’s tenacity. It is a situation that the president believes works in his favor whether or not he retains power. It strengthens his claim that only he can prevent Yemen from disintegrating and Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Gulf (AQAP), from taking over parts of the country.

It also deepens the divisions in the country and among the opposition which enhances the GPC’s ability to hold on to power if and when he is gone.

As if to prove Mr. Saleh’s point, Islamist militants this weekend took control of the coastal town of Zinjibar in the southern province of Abyan, seizing banks, government offices and the security headquarters. The capture of Zinjibar followed the militant’s takeover in March of the city of Jaar.

The fall Zinjibar and Jaar, feeds Western and Gulf fears that AQAP could benefit spiraling chaos in Yemen.

Mr. Saleh’s opponents charged that the embattled president had engineered the takeover to weaken his erstwhile allies’ resolve to remove him from power. Although there is no evidence to substantiate the claim, it would not be the first time that Mr. Saleh used AQAP to demonstrate his value in the struggle against Islamist militancy. Mr. Saleh has repeatedly warned since the eruption in February of mass protests demanding his departure that AQAP would take over parts of the country if he left.

The sense of mounting anarchy was further fueled by continued fighting in Sana’a between government forces and fighters of the Hashid tribal confederation, Yemen’s most powerful tribal grouping, despite the declaration of a ceasefire. Some 100 people have been killed since hostilities erupted last Monday.
Mr. Saleh further demonstrated his resolve to break the demonstrators’ back by sending security forces to clear a square in Taiz, a city in the center of the country, where protesters had been squatting since February. Twenty people were killed in the clashes. Protesters there said plainclothes men were early Monday setting their tents on fire and destroying others with bulldozers.

The Syria-style crackdown on the protesters and the fact that the only thing Mr. Saleh’s opponents agree on is that they want him to go has enabled the president to repeatedly go back on his promise to resign and allowed the GPC to emerge as the major party with an intact, cohesive organization and a strong grassroots following.

Like in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is one of, if not the best organized opposition force, Yemen’s Islamist Islah Party is emerging as a dominating force in the coalition of six opposition parties alongside a medley of youth, leftists, liberals and religious groups that form the backbone of the mass protests.

Islah is an umbrella for moderate Islamists as well as hardliners led by Sheikh Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani, who has been designed a terrorist by the United States for allegedly funding Al Qaeda and serving as a spiritual leader to Osama bin Laden. Protesters say the party has already made its influence felt on Sana’s Change Square where the protesters are gathered. They say the party imposed strict gender segregation on the square and attacked women and men who refused to comply.

Opposition leaders, in a bid to disassociate themselves from the spiraling violence and to counter Mr. Saleh’s projection of himself as the country’s potential savior, have called for peaceful anti-government protests. The GPC, in a move that could set the scene for clashes, said it would organize a counter “law and order” demonstration.

Perhaps the only bright light on Yemen’s horizon is the reported defection to the opposition of a brigade of the Republican Guard that is commanded by Mr. Saleh's son, Ahmed as well as a statement by the country’s Military Council criticizing Mr. Saleh. General Abdullah Ali Elaiwah, one of the military’s top commanders was further quoted as saying that Mr. Saleh’s top aides are advising him to step down.

The military pressure on Mr. Saleh is believed to have been sparked by the militants’ takeover of Zinjibar. Betting on the military however may be grasping for a thin straw. Earlier military defections have failed to sway Mr. Saleh and in effect weakened the military as the country’s only authoritative institution. For now, Mr. Saleh appears to be brushing the military criticism aside.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Bin Hammam blasts FIFA decision to suspend him


One-time world soccer body FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam has blasted a decision by the body's ethics committee to suspend him alongside three other soccer officials on suspicion of bribery, charging that the committee had not applied fair play.

Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, said in a statement that he did not understand the logic the suspension given that the committee had not been found guilty of wrongdoing.

The committee is investigating bribery charges that Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials had sought to buy the votes of members of the Caribbean Football Union for the Qatari’s presidential candidacy.

The committee said the suspension was not a verdict of innocent or guilty but was based on its conclusion that there was the appearance of an infringement of FIFA’s code of ethics. The officials were suspended until the committee completes a full investigation, probably in July.

The committee meanwhile pronounced FIFA president Sepp Blatter innocent of accusations that he had been aware of the alleged bribery and had not reported it.

Mr. Blatter is the sole candidate in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for Wednesday after Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before Sunday’s committee hearing. Mr. Blatter said after the committee decision through his spokesman that "I regret what has happened in the last few days and weeks. FIFA’s image has suffered a great deal as a result, much to the disappointment of FIFA itself and all football fans."

Mr. Blatter’s statement aimed to prevent the scandal and the on-going investigation from persuading a majority of FIFA members to postpone the FIFA presidential election because of the corruption scandal.

In his statement, Mr. Bin Hammam said: "I have been referred to the Ethics Committee based on evidence which was strong enough in the views of the FIFA General Secretary for such procedure. However, the Ethics Committee in its meeting today did not find this evidence sufficient to convict me. Consequently, I should have been given the benefit of doubt but instead, I have been banned from all football activities,” Mr. Bin Hammam said.

Mr. Bin Hammam, who was head of the Asian Football Confederation and a FIFA executive member, charged that FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke, a supporter of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, had influenced the committee decision and compromised its independence.

"I have been given the impression that the Ethics Committee is absolutely an independent committee, but in the press conference we have seen today, the General Secretary made clear that he is the one who has the influence in this Committee." 

At the FIFA press conference, Mr. Valcke unveiled what Mr. Bin Hammam saw as new evidence, which had not been part of the committee proceedings and therefore had not been reviewed.

"I'm very disappointed about the way the status of the proceeding has been presented at the media conference. I am expecting that this will continue. This is not how I understand fair play. I'm reserving all my rights,” Mr. Bin Hammam said.

The suspension tarnishes what was otherwise a successful legacy. Mr. Bin Hammam played a key role in professionalizing Asian soccer, establishing a consistent standard across a huge and diverse continent, and launching professional leagues in India, Qatar and the UAE as well as the Asian Champions League. The one achievement he claimed which is harder to substantiate is that he democratized the AFC. Mr. Bin Hammam also played a key role in convincing European clubs to invest in grassroots development.

Mr. Bin Hamam and FIFA vice-president Jack Warner answered bribery charges Sunday in front of the committee resulting from allegations levelled by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer. Mr. Blazer produced a file of evidence claiming that bundles of cash of up to $40,000 were handed over to CFU members of at the Trinidad meeting.

Responding to his temporary suspension, Mr. Warner criticized on the Trinidad and Tobago Soca Warriors Facebook the decision to clear Mr. Blatter. He charged that Mr. Blatter had bought votes at a May 3 meeting of CONCACAF, the association of North American and Caribbean soccer, by donating $ 1 million to CONCAFAF.

“This annoyed (European soccer boss President) Michel Platini who was present and he approached Secretary General Jerome Valcke complaining that Mr Blatter had no permission from the Finance Committee to make this gift to which Jerome replied that he will find the money for Mr Blatter,” Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Warner asserted further that he had submitted letters from 13 CFU member associations denying that he had been involved in any attempt at bribery. He said John Collins, the investigator hired by Mr. Blazer, had produced only one letter alleging that Mr. Warner had conspired with Mr. Bin Hammam to bribe CFU members.

At the news conference announcing the suspension of the FIFA officials, Mr. Valcke said similar allegations were made in an email he had received from the Puerto Rican soccer association.

Mr Warner charged further that Mr. Valcke in an email exchange regarding Mr.Bin Hammam’s candidacy had acknowledged that Qatar had bought the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Mr. Warner had threatened prior to his suspension to unleash a “football tsunami” against FIFA.

“For MBH (Mohamed Bin Hammam), I never understood why he was running. If really he thought he had a chance or just being an extreme way to express how much he does not like anymore JSB (Sepp Blatter). Or he thought you can buy FIFA as they bought the WC (World Cup),” Mr. Warner quoted Mr. Valcke as saying in his mail.

Mr. Valcke said after the announcement of the suspensions that the ethics committee had yet to meet with a whistle blower who was the source of The Sunday Times allegations that Qatar had paid $1.5 million each to buy the votes of FIFA executive committee members Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma. The Sunday Times made the allegation in a letter to a British parliamentary enquiry on soccer governance. Messrs. Hayatoou and Anouma have denied receiving money from Qatar.

The paper reported on Sunday that the whistle blower was demanding guarantees for his protection in exchange for his testimony. FIFA had withdrawn guarantees it initially provided saying that an anonymous statement by the whistle blower would be sufficient, The Sunday Times said.

FIFA temporarily bans Bin Hammam but clears Blatter of corruption charges


The ethics committee of world soccer body FIFA has temporarily banned from any soccer activity Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Hammam, Jack Warner the head of the North American and Caribbean soccer association CONCACAF and two Caribbean Football Union executives on suspicion of bribery.

The committee cleared FIFA president Sepp Blatter of having had knowledge of the alleged bribery and having failed to report it. The decision paves the way for Mr. Blatter to stand as the sole candidate in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for June 1 after Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before Sunday’s committee hearing.

Ethics committee deputy chairman Petrus Damaseb said the committee had taken its decision on the basis that the four individuals were “innocent until proven guilty.” Mr Damaseb said the committee’s task in Sunday’s hearing was not to determine guilt or innocence but to establish whether there had been an infringement of the FIFA code of ethics. He said the committee had concluded that there was an appearance and a case to answer on the basis of documents presented by various parties as well as the testimonies of the accused and their accusers.

The banning of the four executives that include beside Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner CFU executives Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester will be for the period that it will take to conduct a full investigation. He said he expected the investigation to be concluded in July.

The FIFA investigation was sparked by allegations by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer that Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner had made the offer to Caribbean Football Union (CFU) members at a meeting on May 10 and 11 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s meeting with the CFU was on the same day that the British enquiry was hearing evidence from former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman and was reviewing a letter from The Sunday Times that alleged that Qatar had paid off two FIFA executive committee members.

Mr. Bin Hammam has admitted that he paid for the CFU delegates’ expenses. British newspaper The Sunday Times reported that the payment of up to $40,000 per member was in envelopes with the members’ names on it.

Mr. Bin Hammam insisted that Mr. Blatter also be questioned by the committee on the grounds that Mr. Warner had informed him of the payments. The committee said Mr. Blatter did not have an obligation to report the alleged payment because it had not occurred at the time he was informed and therefore did not constitute a breach of FIFA’s code of ethics. It said that reporting an intention would have been seen as an attempt by Mr. Blatter to smear his challenger, Mr. Bin Hammam.

Mr. Blazer, the paper reported, hired a Chicago-based former prosecutor, John Collins, to gather evidence for his allegations. Mr. Collins was among those who testified in front of the ethics committee on Sunday.

At least five Caribbean football associations, including those of the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, are reported to have refused the payments. Mr. Collins’ evidence that was handed over to FIFA is said to include sworn statements from CFU delegates who rejected the payment, emails between Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner regarding the Trinidad meeting and pictures of the cash. 

At the news conference in which the banning of Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials was announced FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcker said he had received an email minutes before the conference from the Puerto Rican soccer association affirming that it had been paid $40,000 from Mr. Bin Hammam and would be returning the funds.

Mr. Bin Hammam asserted earlier that the timing of the accusations so close to the FIFA presidential election suggests they were part of a plan to “damage” him and “force him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA presidency.”

Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner have denied any wrongdoing and Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of the charged.

Mr. Bin Hammam announced the withdrawal of his presidential candidacy hours before the committee hearing in a statement on his website. Mr. Hammam’s surprising decision is believed to have been taken in consultation with his lawyers with whom he has been huddled for the past 48 hours. British newspaper The Sunday Times said hours after Mr. Bin Hammam’s withdrawal that it had seen fresh evidence of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

“Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed,” Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari FIFA executive committee member said. “The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election.”

The mounting allegations against Qatar cast serious questions about Mr. Bin Hamamm’s FIFA candidacy irrespective of whether he is found to have engaged in illicit practices in his election campaign. Mr. Bin Hammam, a key player in Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign, is likely to find it increasingly difficult to deny that he had any knowledge of alleged Qatari bribery and circumvention of FIFA rules.

Bitter infighting between Mr. Blatter and Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling family, that produced the FIFA investigation has cast a shadow over the organization’s presidential election scheduled for June 1, the second and last day of FIFA’s general assembly.

FIFA officials said the election would go ahead with Mr. Blatter as the sole candidate despite calls that it be postponed because of the corruption scandal, the biggest since its founding 107 years ago.

British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson earlier called on FIFA to delay the election. “The election is turning into a farce. Both of the candidates are accused of corruption and I don’t see how it is possible to vote for either of them when the allegations are so serious.”

Mr. Robertson described the crisis as FIFA’s “Salt Lake City moment,” a reference to the 1999 bribery scandal that forced the International Olympic Committee to reform. “This happens to people when they do jobs for too long. They live in an ivory tower and lose any connection with the world outside,” Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Blatter has headed FIFA for the past 13 years while Mr. Bin Hammam has chaired the AFC since 2002and has been a FIFA executive committee member for 15 years. Mr. Blatter’s tenure has been marked by recurrent scandal.

Perhaps more serious than Mr. Robertson’s call for reform, which is backed by the United States and Australia are signs that the corruption scandal is worrying FIFA’s sponsors. 
“Obviously all that has happened in the past few days is neither positive for sport nor for FIFA,” said Adidas Chief Executive Officer Herbert Hainer.

Mr. Bin Hammam campaigned for the election on a platform that calls for greater transparency within FIFA and blames Mr. Blatter for the organization’s tarnished image. FIFA has witnessed a series of corruption scandals in recent months with 10 of its 24 executive committee members accused of corruption or improper behavior.

Two of the ten were banned last year after having been taped by The Sunday Times soliciting bribes.

The corruption charges include allegations that Qatar may have won the right to host the 2022 World Cup by bribing at least two of FIFA’s executive committee. The investigation into Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Blatter could lead to a cancellation of the FIFA executive committee vote last December that awarded the tournament to the Gulf state. Qatar has denied that it employed bribery in its successful bid campaign.

The Sunday Times said on Sunday that it had seen new documentary evidence that allegedly showed how Qatar plotted to circumvent FIFA rules in its bid. It said it had presented the evidence to a British parliamentary enquiry into soccer governance.

The evidence, the paper said, showed that Qatar had offered FIFA executive committee members cash for projects in exchange for their votes. It said the evidence was included in the January 4, 2010 minutes of a Qatari bid team meeting. The evidence suggests that Qatar considered setting up certain "initiatives" regardless of whether they were allowed under FIFA rules.

The minutes discuss plans to announce up to three "CSR" (corporate social responsibility) initiatives during last July's World Cup finals in South Africa, which would violate FIFA bidding guidelines. The paper says the minutes quote Ali al-Thawadi, the Qatar bid's deputy chief executive who chaired the January 4 meeting, as saying “If FIFA regulations prevent these initiatives then a way has to be found to do these under a different name  (eg through the embassy or as the State of Qatar)." 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

US-Saudi differences over Iran widen emerging gulf between longtime allies


Saudi King Abdullah (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) in Riyadh on June 3, 2009. (File photo)

Saudi King Abdullah (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) in Riyadh on June 3, 2009. (File photo)
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, already frayed by US support for the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, are being further strained by differences over the degree to which Iran may be instigating the turmoil.

US officials and a report by Chatham House, a prestigious British think tank, warn that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to maintain the regional status quo, refusal to recognize that the protests are fundamentally sparked by widespread political and economic discontent and insistence that Iran is at the root of all evil could provoke sectarian tension across the Middle East and Asia.
The fears are further fuelled by Saudi efforts, disclosed by The Wall Street Journal, to rally Muslim nations across the Middle East and Asia to join an informal Arab alliance against Iran. Saudi officials have approached Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central Asian states to lend diplomatic support and possibly military assistance to help stifle a majority Shiite revolt in Sunni-led Bahrain.

The crackdown on the protests in Bahrain and the introduction of troops of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to help the kingdom secure its critical national infrastructure have made Bahrain the flashpoint of Saudi and Gulf allegations that Iran is stoking the pot.

Bahrain invited the GCC troops to help it defend itself against alleged Iranian interference. Iran has denied the charge, but has vocally defended the rights of protesters and demanded the withdrawal of the GCC troops from the Gulf island-nation.

Malaysia said earlier this month that it was willing to send troops to Bahrain. Bahrain welcomed the offer but said it needed diplomatic rather than military support.

A Bahrain-based Pakistani battalion has been on the island since before the protests. Pakistani and Bahraini officials say it did not participate in the crackdown. In addition, many Pakistani nationals serve in the Bahraini police force.

The United States unsuccessfully pressed Saudi Arabia not to intervene in Bahrain. President Barack Obama last week criticized the crackdown on protesters and called on the Bahraini king to release detained protesters, arguing that he could not negotiate reforms with people who were being held in prison.

US officials fear that Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Asian nations could complicate its efforts to ensure that Pakistan works with the United States in the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan and militant Islamist groups within Pakistan itself. Some US officials suggest that Saudi Arabia’s focus on Iran as the region’s external enemy constitutes a bid to divert attention from the protests on the streets of Arab cities and towns.

To be sure, US officials as well as the Chatham House report. ‘The Middle East: The Persian Illusion,” acknowledge that Iran has been meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states. But they differ with Saudi Arabia, which has emerged as the key power promoting maintenance of the status quo, over how important the Iranian meddling is in fuelling the protests across the region.

The differences lay bare the widening gulf between the kingdom and the United States, whose past alliance involving secure oil supplies in exchange for US security guarantees constituted a cornerstone of US foreign policy.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are certain to maintain their basic understandings and arrangements but mounting policy differences between them mean that the kingdom is no longer willing to put all its eggs in the American basket.

Saudi Arabia is nonetheless looking to purchase $60 billion worth of arms from the United States in the largest such deal in US history. The US meanwhile shields Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states against Iran by air and by sea through a string of military bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi doubts about the reliability of the United States as an ally and protector stem from the 2003 toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that boosted Iranian and Shiite influence in the region, US inability to force Israel to moderate its conditions for peace with the Palestinians and US support for popular revolts against authoritarian regimes. These doubts have prompted the kingdom to embark on a more independent foreign policy that frequently is at odds with US goals.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan al Saud, a former ambassador to the United States who heads the kingdom’s Nation Security Council, made as much clear in a recent solicitation of Pakistani support. Prince Bandar, according to the Journal, warned Pakistani military officials that the US could not be counted on to restore stability in the Middle East or protect Pakistan's interests in South Asia.

The prince’s remarks came at a time that US-Pakistani relations are strained over a US commando operation on Pakistani soil in which Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed. Saudi officials deny that the prince badmouthed the US.

US officials as well as the Chatham House report warn that the Bahraini crackdown and the Saudi effort to forge an alliance of Middle Eastern and Asian states against Iran could drive the Shiite majority on the island as well as Shiite communities elsewhere in the region into the hands of Iran.

“What is more likely to render aggrieved Shia groups receptive to Iranian meddling: peaceful dialogue and meaningful reform, or bitter sectarian accusations and crushing violence?” the Chatham House report asks.

Answering its own question, the report concludes that “the Saudi-led effort to vilify essentially moderate demonstrators will, in the long-term, radicalize these groups, harden confessional fault-lines, and thereby produce the very Iranian backlash on which these policies are conditioned.”

There is little public evidence of US and European efforts to manage the widening gulf with Saudi Arabia in perceptions of the roots of the turmoil racking the Middle East and North Africa and the way to ensure that it does not get out of hand. To be sure, Mr. Obama was careful not to mention Saudi Arabia in his recent broad-ranging Middle East policy speech in which he placed the United States squarely behind Arab protesters demanding reform.

That, however, may not be enough to prevent further divergence. Ensuring that the mounting differences with Saudi Arabia are carefully managed poses the greatest challenge to US policy in the region.

For the Obama administration, this means walking a tightrope. It has to balance its support for popular revolts with assurances that it remains committed to defending Saudi and Gulf security. In essence, Mr. Obama is trying to have cheesecake and eat it at the same time. If the Saudi efforts to enlist Asian support are any indication that is proving to be mission impossible.

Bin Hammam withdraws from FIFA presidential race amid fresh allegations against Qatar


Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Hammam has withdrawn his candidacy in world soccer body FIFA’s presidential election that is mired by accusation of corruption against Mr. Bin Hammam and incumbent Sepp Blatter.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s announcement in a statement on his website came hours before he, Mr. Blatter and three other FIFA officials are scheduled to be questioned in Zurich on Sunday by FIFA’s ethics committee. Mr. Hammam’s surprising decision is believed to have been taken in consultation with his lawyers with whom he has been huddled for the past 48 hours. British newspaper The Sunday Times said hours after Mr. Bin Hammam’s withdrawal that it had seen fresh evidence of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

“Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed,” Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari FIFA executive committee member said. “The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election.”

The mounting allegations against Qatar cast serious questions about Mr. Bin Hamamm’s FIFA candidacy irrespective of whether he is found to have engaged in illicit practices in his election campaign. Mr. Bin Hammam, a key player in Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign, is likely to find it increasingly difficult to deny that he had any knowledge of alleged Qatari bribery and circumvention of FIFA rules.

Bitter infighting between Mr. Blatter, who has headed FIFA for the past 13 years, and Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling family, that produced the FIFA investigation has cast a shadow over the organization’s presidential election scheduled for June 1, the second and last day of FIFA’s general assembly.

It is unclear how FIFA believes it can credibly go ahead with the elections following Mr. Bin Hamamm’s withdrawal and amid a spiraling corruption scandal, the biggest since its founding 107 years ago.

Mr. Bin Hammam campaigned for the election on a platform that calls for greater transparency within FIFA and blames Mr. Blatter for the organization’s tarnished image. FIFA has witnessed a series of corruption scandals in recent months with 9 of its 24 executive committee members accused of corruption or improper behavior.

Two of the nine were banned last year after having been taped by The Sunday Times soliciting bribes.

The corruption charges include allegations that Qatar may have won the right to host the 2022 World Cup by bribing at least two of FIFA’s executive committee. The investigation into Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Blatter could lead to a cancellation of the FIFA executive committee vote last December that awarded the tournament to the Gulf state. Qatar has denied that it employed bribery in its successful bid campaign.

The Sunday Times said on Sunday that it had seen new documentary evidence that allegedly showed how Qatar plotted to circumvent FIFA rules in its bid. It said it had presented the evidence to a British parliamentary enquiry into soccer governance.

The evidence, the paper said, showed that Qatar had offered FIFA executive committee members cash for projects in exchange for their votes. It said the evidence was included in the January 4, 2010 minutes of a Qatari bid team meeting disclosed by an unidentified whistle blower, who failed to appear before FIFA’s ethic committee last Wednesday. The evidence suggests that Qatar considered setting up certain "initiatives" regardless of whether they were allowed under FIFA rules.

The minutes discuss plans to announce up to three "CSR" (corporate social responsibility) initiatives during last July's World Cup finals in South Africa, which would violate FIFA bidding guidelines. 

The paper says the minutes quote Ali al-Thawadi, the Qatar bid's deputy chief executive who chaired the January 4 meeting, as saying “If FIFA regulations prevent these initiatives then a way has to be found to do these under a different name ...."

In the investigation, Mr. Bin Hammam and fellow board member Jack Warner stand accused of handing out about $2 million in cash to Caribbean soccer officials labeled as development of the sport but intended to buy their support for the AFC chief’s candidacy.

The FIFA investigation was sparked by allegations by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer that Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner had made the offer to Caribbean Football Union (CFU) members at a meeting on May 10 and 11 in Trinidad.

Mr. Bin Hammam asserted earlier that the timing of the accusations so close to the FIFA presidential election suggests they were part of a plan to “damage” him and “force him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA presidency.”

Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner have denied any wrongdoing and Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of the charged.

Mr. Blatter was summoned for questioning by the FIFA ethics committee at Mr. Bin Hammam’s request after the AFC chief asserted that Mr. Blatter was aware of the CFU payments.

“I pray that my withdrawal will not be tied to the investigation,” Bin Hammam said on his website. He said that he planned to attend today’s hearing “to clear my name from the baseless allegations that have been made against me.”

Mr. Blatter, in a May 26 column on the Inside World Football website, said that the charges against Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner, who oversees the sport in the Caribbean, “brought him no joy.” He also said that claims that the matter was masterminded by him were “ludicrous and completely reprehensible.”

Bin Hammam withdraws from FIFA presidential race


Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Hammam has withdrawn his candidacy in world soccer body FIFA’s presidential election that is mired by accusation of corruption against Mr. Bin Hammam and incumbent Sepp Blatter.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s announcement in a statement on his website came hours before he, Mr. Blatter and three other FIFA officials are scheduled to be questioned in Zurich on Sunday by FIFA’s ethics committee. Mr. Hammam’s surprising decision is believed to have been taken in consultation with his lawyers with whom he has been huddled for the past 48 hours.

“Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed,” Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari FIFA executive committee member said. “The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election.”

Bitter infighting between Mr. Blatter, who has head FIFA for the past 13 years, and Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling family, that produced the FIFA investigation has cast a shadow over the organization’s presidential election scheduled for June 1, the second and last day of FIFA’s general assembly.

Mr. Bin Hammam campaigned for the election on a platform that calls for greater transparency within FIFA and blames Mr. Blatter for the organization’s tarnished image. FIFA has witnessed a series of corruption scandals in recent months with 9 of its 24 executive committee members accused of corruption or improper behavior.

Two of the nine were banned last year after having been taped by British newspaper The SundayTimes soliciting bribes.

The corruption charges include allegations that Qatar may have won the right to host the 2022 World Cup by bribing at least two of FIFA’s executive committee. The investigation into Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Blatter could lead to a cancellation of the FIFA executive committee vote last December that awarded the tournament to the Gulf state. Qatar has denied that it employed bribery in its successful bid campaign.

In the investigation, Mr. Bin Hammam and fellow board member Jack Warner stand accused of handing out about $2 million in cash to Caribbean soccer officials labeled as development of the sport but intended to buy their support for the AFC chief’s candidacy.

The investigation was sparked by allegations by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer that Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner had made the offer to Caribbean Football Union (CFU) members at a meeting on May 10 and 11 in Trinidad.

Mr. Bin Hammam asserted earlier that the timing of the accusations so close to the FIFA presidential election suggests they were part of a plan to “damage” him and “force him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA presidency.”

Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner have denied any wrongdoing and Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of the charged.

Mr. Blatter was summoned for questioning by the FIFA ethics committee at Mr. Bin Hammam’s request.

“I pray that my withdrawal will not be tied to the investigation,” Bin Hammam said on his website. He said that he planned to attend today’s hearing “to clear my name from the baseless allegations that have been made against me.”

Mr. Blatter, in a May 26 column on the Inside World Football website, said that the charges against Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner, who oversees the sport in the Caribbean, “brought him no joy.” He also said that claims that the matter was masterminded by him were “ludicrous and completely reprehensible.”