Is the Holy Grail hidden within the FEI?

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Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in the 2006 film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.
Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in the 2006 film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.

I arrived home a few nights ago and eased on to the couch with a cup of tea to watch the last half of the movie, The Da Vinci Code.

Fans of the book will remember it as a rather forgettable film adaptation of Dan Brown’s 2003 blockbuster novel of the same name. It lacked decent chemistry between the actors and generally failed to replicate the rollicking adventure that made the book a page-turner.

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

As the movie ended, it occurred to me that the mystery, drama and intrigue that currently surrounds the future of the FEI presidency would make a much better movie than The Da Vinci Code.

I am sure that FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos could fill the role of the swashbuckling lead actor admirably.

I am confident he would do a much better job than Tom Hanks did in playing symbologist Robert Langdon. We also have Princess Haya, potentially the last in the royal line of presidents that dates back exactly 60 years.

And Casting Central could hardly go past the FEI Bureau to play the mysterious group, the Priory of Scion.

For those unfamiliar with this fascinating FEI tale, put The Da Vinci Code out of your mind and let me recap the plot.

In 1974, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein is born. She is of royal Jordanian blood.

Little did her devoted parents realise that their daughter would rise to be president of the mighty International Equestrian Federation, continuing an unbroken line of royal presidents dating back to 1954.

The Oxford-educated princess becomes an accomplished showjumper, participating in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia and the 2002 FEI World Equestrian Games in Spain. She represents her country with pride as the first Jordanian female Olympian.

Her career triumphs include an individual bronze medal in the 1992 Pan Arab Games in Syria.

In 2004, she marries into another royal family. Her husband, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, is himself an accomplished equestrian.

Two years later, she ascends to the FEI presidency.

The princess promises reform in her new role and, soon after her election, persuades the FEI gatekeepers that the constitution should be changed to prevent the president and other senior elected officials staying in their roles for more than two four-year terms. The change is passed.

Her presidency is not without controversy. There is an unseemly spat over an ill-conceived plan to ease the equine drug rules and many nations, rightly or wrongly, apportion blame to the princess.

She faces a challenge when she stands for a second term in 2010, but romps home in an election in which she sees off two Europeans vying for the role.

There is more discomfort for the princess in her second term as stables linked to her husband in Britain and in Dubai come under scrutiny over drug infractions, as well as welfare concerns around endurance racing in the Middle East centred on Dubai.

FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos
FEI Secretary General Ingmar De Vos.

Through all of this, the diligent princess does her job. She bestows great riches upon the FEI. Her generosity sees the FEI settle into very comfortable premises in Lausanne, Switzerland, appropriately named after her father. Her influence and power are instrumental, too, in attracting multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals.

She is appointed to the International Olympic Committee, where she proves to be a well respected and powerful advocate for equestrian sport.

The princess’s second term is considered little short of a triumph, but dark clouds are gathering.

The constitutional change soon after her election will require her to stand down in November this year.

Member nations act. Last July, the nine regional group chairs of the FEI agree unanimously to seek a statute change to allow the princess to stay. The proposal is set to go to a vote before the FEI’s General Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland, last November.

To the surprise of many, Haya announces some six weeks before the meeting that her view is unchanged: eight years is enough for anyone in the role, she says. She thanks member nations for the sentiment, but says she will be standing down this November, as the rules require.

Crestfallen representatives from member-nations drown their sorrows over a glass or two of chablis when they meet in Montreux.

Could Haya be the last in the royal line, they ask?

Perhaps all is not lost. Behind the scenes, 100 member nations sign a petition seeking an Extraordinary General Assembly to amend the rules in any case, to allow three four-year terms for the president.

In effect, they hope that if they open the door, they may persuade the princess to walk through it and remain for a third term.

The FEI Bureau meets and declares that the special meeting will be held on the second day of the FEI Sports Forum in Lausanne late in April.

I doubt that Dan Brown could conceive of such a high-stakes plot.

So, we sit some 11 weeks out from the Extraordinary General Assembly, in a situation that can only be described as delicately poised.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya.

It seems clear that the member-nations will pass the amendment, but what will Princess Haya do? Will she stay on to take the FEI forward for another four years?

Haya’s advisers will probably suggest there is little point expressing a view on the special April meeting until closer to the time. It is surely best, from her point of view, to watch, wait, and see what develops.

Haya clearly spelled out her view last September on a third term, so in theory she could say nothing further on the subject and simply vacate the role this November.

However, I think she will express her view at or before that meeting, so FEI nations are left in no doubt whether they need to find a new president at the next full General Assembly, to be held in Dubai in November.

Nominations for FEI governance roles are usually due by mid-June, so we will certainly know by then whether she is standing again.

Lest I be accused of interviewing my typewriter for this entire piece, I contacted the manager of press relations for the FEI, Malina Gueorguiev, with three questions for Princess Haya about the presidency issue.

In short, I asked whether the princess would consider staying on for a third term, given what would appear to be wide international support for her to do so?

Gueorguiev politely replied that Haya was currently working on finalising her programme for 2014 in co-operation with FEI member nations.

“She is not ready to discuss this topic in the media before she has had the chance to finalise her plans in co-operation with the national federations,” she said.

One could certainly infer from the response that Haya may be prepared to discuss the issue at some point in coming weeks.

One can only speculate at this time on what her view might be.

It is easy to forget with public figures that they do have a personal life. Princess Haya has a husband, children, and a home in Dubai. I have no doubt she enjoys the simple trappings of family life as much as anyone, from playing with her children to being around to witness them chalk up the milestones of growing up.

While she has voiced her love for the role of president, it is impossible to know what personal factors may ultimately influence her decision. Like any couple, she is certain to discuss such an important decision with her spouse.

What if Haya confirms she will be leaving the role this November?

Of greatest concern to the FEI and its member nations is the lack of an obvious successor.

Inevitably, several European nations were understood to be pushing the notion in Montreux that it would be nice to have the next FEI president from Europe.

In reality, nearly every FEI president since the world governing body’s creation in 1921 has been from either mainland Europe or Great Britain, with the exception of Haya and General Guy Henry, from the United States, who was president for five years during the 1930s.

Perhaps we will see a European president, but any such candidate will have to convince member-nations that he or she takes a global view of world equestrian sport, and has true empathy for the dozens of smaller nations outside the sport’s European powerhouse. A Euro-centric candidate simply will not fly with many nations around the world.

As for the 60-year unbroken line of royal presidents, one can only speculate whether a blue-blood with the right credentials is waiting quietly in the wings.

The true situation is unlikely to fall sharply into focus until the end of April, when the world’s equestrian nations vote on the rule change.

In the meantime, I have a screenplay to write. Right now, I’m struggling to work out who will play the albino monk.

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