Departure of Haya sure to be a blow to equestrian sport

Ingmar De Vos, FEI Secretary General; HRH Princess Haya, FEI President; Nayla Hayek, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Swatch Group; and Juan-Carlos Capelli, Vice-President and Head of International Marketing at Longines, at today’s press conference in Lausanne (SUI) celebrating the historic partnership between the FEI and Swiss watchmaker Longines.
Ingmar De Vos, FEI Secretary General; HRH Princess Haya, FEI President; Nayla Hayek, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Swatch Group; and Juan-Carlos Capelli, Vice-President and Head of International Marketing at Longines, at the press conference in Lausanne announcing the historic partnership between the FEI and Swiss watchmaker Longines early last year. © Sandro Campado/FEI

Heads invariably turn when the president of the International Equestrian Federation hits town.

Onlookers are left in no doubt that she is a person of influence. Her motorcade of three or four vehicles is hard to ignore. And while the president conducts her business, one would not have to look far to find her discreet entourage and security team.

The trappings, of course, have nothing to do with the presidency of the FEI.

Princess Haya was born into the Jordanian royal family and is married to the ruler of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who also serves as deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.

The equestrian world was taken by surprise yesterday with Haya’s announcement that her presidency will, indeed, be at an end at the conclusion of her second four-year term in November next year, as  required under the body’s governing rules. This is despite national federations looking to enact a rule change that would have allowed her a third four-year term.

Indeed, it was Haya who pushed at the start of her presidency, in 2006, for a maximum tenure of two four-year terms for the president.

Haya has been impressive throughout her two terms, but particularly so in the first three years of her second term. There appeared to be wide support for the rule change that would have allowed her a third term.

Two months ago, the nine regional group chairs of the FEI agreed unanimously to seek a statute change to that effect. That proposal would have gone to a vote before the FEI’s General Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland, this November.

Haya, in explaining her decision, said she loved her role. “However, 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.”

Many nations will view her departure as a blow to the FEI’s stature on the global sporting stage.

Her high international profile and powerful connections are greatly valued.

Those qualities no doubt played a part in her winning a seat on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which she will relinquish when she steps down. Haya was a respected member of the IOC and a strong advocate for equestrian sport at an Olympic level.

There are no guarantees that the next president of the FEI will be voted on to the IOC. The IOC membership never exceeds 115 members, and no more than 15 of those spots are allocated to senior officials within the international federations of the 26 Olympic disciplines.

Speculation is sure to swirl around her decision. Have other factors been at play?

FEI President Princess Haya.
FEI President Princess Haya.

“Perhaps, morally, she would have found it very difficult to accept the statute change,” suggested one source, who noted that Haya had been very firm in her view early in her presidency that eight years was enough in such a role.

The informal meeting organised by the group chairs last April, while attending an FEI Bureau meeting, expressed unanimous support for the statute change. That was surely a clear enough indication that national federations wanted her in the role for another four years. However, that did not necessarily indicate universal support.

The Daily Telegraph suggested in a report on September 18 that Haya faced a fight to continue as FEI president over a so-called conflict of interest arising from drugs scandals around her husband’s equine interests.

Sheikh Mohammed is a keen horse lover who competes at the highest level in the sport of endurance. And he is a global player in the thoroughbred racing industry through his Godolphin racing empire.

The sheikh was angered several months ago following revelations that one of his British-based trainers, Mahmood Al Zarooni, had dosed a string of racehorses with anabolic steroids outside competition. Aside from a thorough review  at his thoroughbred operations, the sheikh also criminalized the use of anabolic steroids in racehorses in Dubai.

But the spotlight has also fallen on endurance and the issues are uncomfortably close to home for the sheikh.

Several European federations led the charge, suggesting that if the FEI did not start to make serious inroads into drug infractions and fracture rates in the Middle East, the reputation of endurance could well sustain lasting damage.

One European national federation even raised the spectre of a breakaway group to distance the wider sport from the ongoing problems.

The disciplinary decisions from the FEI over the last eight years provide a sorry litany of drug infractions in endurance, with a solid majority originating from the Middle East. It has been a blight on the growing status of the sport.

The Swiss Federation was most vocal, describing the situation as critical. It noted that, from 2010 to 2012, 41 endurance horses were found to be positive for banned substances.

Notably, 82.9 per cent of the cases in endurance originated from the FEI’s zone VII – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan.

The letter asserted that such breaches indicated “a clear disrespect of certain riders, trainers and veterinarians concerning the welfare of horses in sport and the FEI code of conduct”.

The sheikh is obviously a busy man and pays people to prepare his racing and endurance horses. In 2009, he received a six-month ban after his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.

Trainer Abdullah bin Huzaim, who admitted giving the horse drugs before the desert races at Bahrain and Dubai, was handed a one-year ban.

Under FEI rules, the person riding the horse in an event is responsible for any drug breaches, although other support personnel may also be held accountable if circumstances dictate.

Such matters have undoubtedly been uncomfortable for Haya, who was instrumental in pushing through the Clean Sport reforms in her current term.

Haya and the FEI organised meetings to address the endurance issues, but several European nations have concerns over the makeup of the committee charged with finding a way forward.

However, in reality, despite disquiet expressed by the Swiss equestrian federation over this perceived conflict around her husband’s equestrian interests, she would never have lost a bid for a third term, had she chosen to pursue it.

One should not underestimate Haya’s role in getting the massive equestrian sponsorship deals out of the Saudi Equestrian Fund and the watchmaker Longines. Her influence and profile has played no small part in hauling in sponsorship amounting to tens of millions of dollars. Quite simply, Haya moves in circles well beyond the reach of any FEI president ultimately chosen from the ranks.

It was therefore highly likely that the proposed statute change – the fate of which is now uncertain – would have got the two-thirds support needed to be passed.

European federations comprise just 40 of the FEI’s 130 member states and, unless circumstances had changed dramatically before the Montreux General Assembly, it would be hard to imagine more than a handful opposing the statute change.

Why? Because, quite simply,  Haya has proved to be a highly effective president, especially in her second term. The FEI is serving equestrian interests and national federations well. Haya has surrounded herself with people who have helped her deliver promised reforms. Her international profile is invaluable.

FEI President Princess Haya announces the €16 million four-year sponsorship package for the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup in November 2012.
FEI President Princess Haya announces the €16 million four-year sponsorship package for the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup in November 2012.

Her Clean Sport programme has been lauded, and equestrian sports emerged from the London Olympics stronger than ever.

Her global view of equestrian sport has wide support, especially so among the lesser equestrian nations, who may well be concerned about a potential return to a eurocentric FEI with her departure in 13 months.

Any opposition to a third term would have been centred on Europe, most notably the Swiss and Dutch – if one is to read their reported opposition to the statute change in this way.

One can understand a degree of European frustration. Europe is the powerhouse of equestrian sport and for decades called all the shots. The game has not always gone the way of European nations in recent years – look at jumping’s Nations Cup – but most European members would realise the significance of maintaining a viable global reach for the sport, especially in keeping the key equestrian disciplines within the Olympics.

It should also be noted that no obvious successors for the presidency are waiting in the wings.

To put that in perspective, the satisfaction with Haya’s presidency following her first term was weaker in 2010, when she stood for re-election, than it is today.

Disquiet over her approach and her perceived role in the debacle over plans to tolerate limited levels of the anti-inflammatory drug, phenylbutazone, in competition horses resulted in two very capable European challengers, Sven Holmberg and Henk Rottinghuis, standing against her. She still won hands down.

Who will be the next president? These are early days, of course, and the world of equestrian politics is never simple. The manoeuvring is likely to be subtle at first, as candidates and federations sound out their prospects.

Possibilities at this early stage include American John Madden, the charismatic chairman of the FEI’s Jumping Committee. His statesman-like qualities are well known. By all accounts, he is an impressive performer.

Another possibility is the affable German Hanfried Haring, who chairs the powerful regional Group 2 of the FEI. He is also chairman of the European Equestrian Federation.

Andrew Finding, a born diplomat and current chief executive of the British Equestrian Federation, is another player in favour with the FEI hierarchy. Finding heads the committee looking into endurance reform, though it is unlikely that a national federation employee would easily make the transition.

At this early stage, we have no idea as to what aspirations Haya’s two vice-presidents –  John McEwen, of Britain, and Pablo Tomas Mayorga, of Argentina – may have in terms of stepping up to the presidency.

Of course, it is always possible that another member of a royal family will be voted into the role. Prince Philip and Princess Anne, both of Britain, have each held the role, as has the Spanish Infanta.

Indeed, a perusal of‎ past presidents reveals that the president has had an HRH – his or her royal highness – in front of their name since the appointment of Prince Bernard, of the Netherlands, in 1954.

Could that open the door for the likes of Sheikh Khalid Bin Abdulla al Kalifa? He is a member of the Bahraini royal family and deputy prime minister of Bahrain. He is chief executive of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee and chairman of FEI regional group 7.

Much has yet to unfold. A source suggests Princess Haya may well be asked to reconsider her decision when member nations come together this November for the General Assembly. However, given the content of her statement announcing her decision, it seems unlikely she will change her stance.

Most national federations will still be coming to terms with her announcement, trying to work out what it will ultimately mean.

It will be an interesting 14 months, leading up to a vote at the 2014 General Assembly to elect her successor.


One thought on “Departure of Haya sure to be a blow to equestrian sport

  • September 27, 2013 at 3:45 am

    A woman of principle, and of her word ! In the international machinations of so many players on the world stage, both the known and the surreptitious, she is all the more to be admired !


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