The FEI presidency: Smoke and mirrors in Montreux

Deep Purple peform at Wacken Open Air, a heavy metal music festival staged annually in Germany in August. Photo: Jonas Rogowski/Wikipedia
Deep Purple perform in August at Wacken Open Air, a heavy metal music festival staged annually in Germany. © Jonas Rogowski

One of the world’s most recognisable guitar riffs owes its existence to a bit of drama in Montreux, Switzerland.

British rock band Deep Purple had arrived in town in 1971 to record an album in a mobile recording studio at the Montreux Casino.

On the eve of the recording session, a concert by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention in the casino’s theatre ended prematurely when a concertgoer fired a flare into the rattan ceiling.

The resulting blaze destroyed the entire casino complex.

FEI President Princess Haya
FEI President Princess Haya

The smoke that drifted from Montreux across Lake Geneva was the inspiration for Deep Purple’s song, Smoke on the Water – a true tale of drama and intrigue wrapped up in an iconic piece of hard rock.

This month’s FEI General Assembly in Montreux delivered its own share of drama and intrigue. There was no fiery ceiling, no Frank Zappa, and no smoke on the water, but FEI train-spotters cannot deny that the whole Princess Haya presidency issue is a fascinating affair.

Delegates from the world’s national equestrian federations were a rather more subdued lot than Zappa’s followers, but they still had the unmistakeable air of fans about them.

They strongly backed her presidency and set in train a constitutional change in the hope she would be reconsider her options and stand for a third four-year term, despite indicating late in September that it was not an option.

The media landscape is littered with views on Haya’s presidency, the predominating theme being that the drug-related issues that have swirled around her husband’s racing and endurance enterprises amount to too much of a conflict for her to properly continue in the role.

However, this does not appear to be the view of the great majority of FEI member nations, keen to persuade her to continue in the role for a third term.

So, as the dust settles from the General Assembly, big unanswered questions remain around Haya’s presidency.

First, some background.

Earlier this year all FEI regional group chairs wrote to the FEI seeking a constitutional change to be voted on in Montreux that would have allowed Haya a third term from November next year.

It was abandoned after Haya publicly stated her intention to step down next November in any case.

It was Haya who, at the start of her presidency in 2006, successfully argued for a constitutional change limiting the presidency to eight years.

In declaring her intention to leave the presidency after eight years, as required in the rules, she said: “I cannot in good conscience put aside my beliefs and the commitment I made seven years ago now that the term limit I supported applies to me.”

That news would have come as a shock to many national federations, which value her high international profile and powerful connections.

However, that was not the end of the matter.

Representatives from national federations on four continents made impassioned pleas for Princess Haya, pictured, to reverse her decision not to stand for a third term as FEI president during Thursday's General Assembly in Montreux.
Representatives from national federations on four continents made impassioned pleas for Princess Haya, to reverse her decision not to stand for a third term as FEI president during the General Assembly. © Richard Juilliart/FEI

In Montreux, a petition signed by 100 of the 132 member nations sought to engineer a statute change in any case that could give the Jordanian princess another four years.

The petition, which appeared to have been organised by the FEI group chairs, called for an extraordinary General Assembly as soon as possible to to make the change.

The FEI Bureau, which met immediately after the General Assembly, agreed that the extraordinary General Assembly would be held on the second day of the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 29 next year – before the deadline for nominations for the presidency.

The petition was careful not to name Haya, but its intention was clear.

Haya excused herself from the General Assembly while nations discussed the matter, and returned to a standing ovation. She could be left in no doubt about the level of support for her presidency.

This was a far cry from a General Assembly preview published by Britain’s Daily Telegraph on November 5, reporting that Haya was expected to face calls to resign over the doping and horse welfare crisis in endurance racing.

Writer Pippa Cuckson later indicated that journalists around the world had been “prodded to report” that Haya  would face calls to quit, but on the day of reckoning the nations involved, seemingly a European bloc, either changed their minds or lost their nerve.


Cuckson, who was in Montreux, offered two explanations. Firstly, the support for the petition clearly indicated the mood of national federations and it was clear that a resignation call would quickly founder. Second, the special hearing for delegates presented by the Endurance Strategic Planning Group offered proposed solutions to the welfare issues in endurance, centred on the Middle East, that were tougher than many envisaged.

The latter does not seem entirely plausible. Yes, the tough proposals met with wide approval, but Haya has made a point of being largely divorced from endurance matters for much of her presidency to avoid the very conflicts of interest raised by some in the media.

Second, it is hard to believe that a few hard-hitting measures from an endurance committee would change the mood from one where a call for her resignation was possible to a standing ovation.

It is far more likely that the bloc muttering about her resignation completely misread the mood of national federations, or were simply testing the waters to see if the idea would fly.

Members of the Endurance Strategic Planning Group lay out their vision before national federation delegates during the special two-hour endurance session at the FEI General Assembly today. Photo: Edouard Curchod/FEI
Members of the Endurance Strategic Planning Group laid out their vision before national federation delegates during a special two-hour endurance session at the FEI General Assembly. © Edouard Curchod/FEI

It was never going to succeed. Haya enjoys huge support among national federations outside the Euro zone – and, indeed, considerable support within it, although not quite as universal.

She is seen as a champion for the interests of developing equestrian nations around the globe.

No-one can deny that the stronghold of traditional equestrian disciplines is Europe. But there are real and valid fears outside Europe that, for the global development of horse sports, the FEI’s focus cannot be too euro-centric.

Haya appears to have achieved that balance, even though some European nations might not take that view.

So, what of the conflict issue?

There is no doubt that the issues around endurance horse welfare, centred on Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain, have been uncomfortable for Haya.

Drug headlines around the endurance and thoroughbred interests of her husband, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, would also have been embarrassing. The sheikh himself even copped a six-month ban in 2009 when his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol, administered by the horse’s trainer.

This is far from ideal, but if it amounted to a serious conflict, why do the great majority of the world’s national federations still support her?

It would seem that most have the sense that there is nothing she has done personally, or as president, that has caused any the endurance woes. The FEI itself appears to be dealing perfectly well with the problem, as evidenced by the support for the Endurance Strategic Planning Group’s initiatives.

Horsetalk put this issue directly to Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) chief executive Jim Ellis, asking, firstly, if New Zealand signed the petition supporting the possibility of a third term for any FEI president. Yes, he replied.

ESNZ CEO Jim Ellis
ESNZ CEO Jim Ellis

Did it do so in the hope that Haya might consider a third term?

“ESNZ’s view is that the recent discussions regarding the FEI presidency shows that the concept of three terms is valid, regardless of the current president’s final decision. The petition will cause a principled debate which is clearly needed,” he replied.

So, does ESNZ see any conflicts around the whole endurance controversy that it would see as an impediment to Haya remaining as president?

“That possibility existed, but has been resolved by the Endurance Strategic Planning Group proposals; Haya has made it clear she will have no involvement with the process and/or proposals for change that follow,” he said.

That would appear to suggest the planning group’s initiatives held some sway, but the earlier request from all regional group chairs for a constitutional change pretty clearly indicates that potential conflicts around the endurance issue were never a game-changer for most national federations.

Why does Haya enjoy such robust support as president?

She has performed well in the role, especially so in her second term, and has successfully pushed much-needed FEI reforms. She is a well respected member of the International Olympic Committee – a role she will have to surrender when she steps down as president.  She has been a strong advocate for equestrian sport within the IOC.

She is exceptionally well connected and has been instrumental in drawing huge sponsorship into the sport.

Which brings us back to the question of whether she would contemplate changing her mind.

Cuckson reported from Montreux on November 7 that Haya remained adamant she would not seek a further term.

Haya was quoted as saying that her views about a maximum of two-terms for the president remained.

“I’ve made my statement – it’s not my place to accept or to not accept, that’s my belief,” she said. “Now the national federations have a different idea. Right now I do not want to think about the presidency any more, I want to do my job.”

FEI president Princess Haya at the final conference of the CSIO Barcelona.
FEI president Princess Haya

Haya’s quote would appear to indicate that her view remains unchanged, but she would not be the first president, chief executive or chairman persuaded to change their mind for the good of their organisation.

That gives rise the question of who could potentially replace her if she cannot be persuaded?

It is understood that several European federations were proffering the view in Montreux that it would nice for the next president to be from Europe. However, there was no evidence that any potential candidates were suggested.

The role has, for decades, been held by a member of a royal family. There are no obvious candidates at this stage in that sphere.

Haya is now silent on the issue, and that is understandable. Almost certainly she will have been advised that there is nothing to be gained by voicing her view either way at this stage. Rather, she is better to get on and serve as president.

Clearly, she will eventually have to make a formal comment on the matter, but that would logically be around, or after, the special General Assembly in April, when federations will vote on the third term.

For now, FEI train-spotters will simply have to keep their binoculars trained and see what unfolds.

In the meantime, someone should write a song about the whole affair.

Have a listen to the Smoke on the Water guitar riff on this Wikipedia page.




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3 thoughts on “The FEI presidency: Smoke and mirrors in Montreux

  • November 21, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    What are some of the reforms that have occurred during this FEI presidency? I have read several articles such as this one that mention them but no one seems to enumerate them.

    thank you

  • November 22, 2013 at 5:32 am

    To Jim Ellis et al:

    The next FEI General Assembly will be in Dubai.
    No one sees this as a potential conflict of interest?

    Does horse welfare seriously take such a back seat to money?
    anxiously awaiting a reply.
    thank you.

  • November 23, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    The song was written in by Eddie Harris and Les McCan. They played it at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival. It’s called “Compared to What?”


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