FEI presidency: Could Princess Haya be swayed to stay on?

FEI President Princess Haya
FEI President Princess Haya

Neil Clarkson imagines walking a mile in the shoes of Princess Haya, in a bid to fathom whether she could be tempted to remain as FEI president. He reports challenging terrain underfoot.

What does a 48-year-old career banker based in New Zealand have in common with the FEI president?

More than you might think. The banker, Andrew Thorburn, who is off to head the National Australia Bank in a few months, will very much be in the public eye in a tough job.

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

Like the FEI president, every major decision he makes will face scrutiny, especially so from shareholders and customers. In both roles, they are expected to make all the right decisions and will be held accountable for the wrong ones.

The difference? For his trouble, Melbourne-born Thorburn will pocket an annual salary of about $A6 million, should he meet all performance targets.

By comparison, the FEI presidency is an unpaid role. This will be no news at all for most readers, but it’s a point worth pondering, given the high profile and responsibilities that go with being president.

Those who seek election to the position surely do so because they feel they can make a positive difference.

For sixty years the role has been occupied by members of royal families. Even without royal connections, the position would surely be tenable only for wealthy individuals of independent means with the nous and the conviction that they could take equestrian sport forward.

I cannot honestly imagine anyone being elected to the role and going out with their friends to celebrate. For most people, it would be a case of reflecting soberly on just what they have taken on.

Princess Haya was elected to the presidency in 2006 on a progressive platform of reform.

Soon after her election, she spelt out her belief that eight years was enough for anyone in the presidency. She got agreement for a constitutional change to make two four-year terms the maximum tenure for any president.

Haya comfortably saw off two challengers to be re-elected in 2010 and has now largely delivered on her manifesto, with a modernised FEI which seems to be running smoothly and efficiently.

There have been other highlights. Equestrian sport put behind it the embarrassing and damaging drug infractions from the Beijing Olympics, enjoying a high-profile and successful London Games in 2012.

Equestrian sport is looking more global than ever and participation rates are up.

Haya was elected to the International Olympic Committee, where she has advocated strongly for equestrian sport.

In the normal course of events the princess would bow out this December at the General Assembly in Dubai and a new president would be elected.

However, member nations have had a rethink and, last July, the nine regional group chairs of the FEI agreed unanimously to seek a statute change that would allow the princess to stay.

The proposal was set to go to a vote before the FEI’s General Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland, last November, but six weeks before the meeting Haya announced that her view was unchanged: Eight years was enough for anyone in the role, she said.

The HM King Hussein I Building, FEI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The HM King Hussein I Building, FEI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

She thanked member nations for the sentiment, but indicated she would be standing down at the 2014 General Assembly, as required. 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.”

Behind the scenes, 100 member nations backed a call for an Extraordinary General Assembly to amend the constitution in any case, to allow three four-year terms for the president. That meeting will take place later this month, in Lausanne, after the FEI Sports Forum.

In effect, member nations are hoping that if the option for a third term is available, Haya might be persuaded to stay on.

Might the strategy work?

No-one knows, of course, but the extent of the support shown by member nations thus far would surely have her at least weighing up the possibility of seeking re-election.

First of all, let us dismiss the notion that it is in any way likely to be a straightforward decision for the princess. There will inevitably be personal considerations for her, as well as assessing the likely political landscape over the next four-year term.

She would firstly need to be convinced that staying beyond the eight years does not compromise her principles, having declared her view that eight years was long enough for anyone in the role.

Haya said last September that she had suggested the eight-year limit at the start of her presidency “because it is essential to ensure fresh thinking and avoid a sense of entitlement within the leadership of an international sport federation”.

Given her stated intention to stand down, and member nations’ apparent determination to persuade her to stay on, it would be a bit rich for anyone to accuse her of having a sense of entitlement in the role.

The need for fresh thinking after eight years? That is a reasonable position to take, but it would surely be hard for the princess to ignore the simple fact that a significant majority of member nations appear to believe her thinking and performance is fresh enough to warrant a third term.

fei-flagI’m not convinced that this part of Haya’s decision is the biggest hurdle she faces.

First, the simple facts: She has largely completed her undertakings to member nations made in her manifesto that earned her election. She has led much-needed reform and helped build equestrian sport. Her high international profile has been a great asset to the equestrian movement, as has her International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership. She has fulfilled her mandate.

I think her biggest conundrum will centre on what she could deliver over the next four years.

How does that terrain look? From all accounts, the FEI is functioning well, but there are several challenging peaks that the next president – whoever that may be – may well need to scale.

Packing the most heat at the moment is the festering controversy around welfare issues and doping infractions centered on Middle Eastern endurance, in particular the Group VII nations of Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain.

The issue has divided the endurance world, with talk on both sides of the Atlantic of breakaway groups if the FEI does not successfully rein in the welfare problems and deal with what some member nations feel is the cavalier approach to the rules by some competitors and some officials in the region.

This whole issue is uncomfortably close to home for Haya on several levels, with Dubai at the centre of the storm.

The FEI is going through a well-publicised process of consultation to bring in rule changes that will not be in place until the end of the year at the earliest, which is already a couple of months into the next Middle Eastern endurance season.

Therefore, the success or failure of this approach will not be known until a couple of months into the next presidential term.

The FEI is hoping the rule changes, together with more stringent enforcement of the rules, will solve the problems, but many view this as optimistic. The Middle East is obviously very fond of its more aggressive endurance desert racing, while nations who have been most vocal on the issue are determined that changes for the betterment of the sport and horses must be made or some sort of divorce will be inevitable.

So, Haya – and indeed any presidential candidate – has to propose a way forward in their manifesto for this thorny issue.

My original thought was that this would be a near impossible task, but perhaps it isn’t so complex. When everything is said is done, it comes down to what member nations on both sides of the endurance debate ultimately consider acceptable that will shape the outcome, not what the FEI, or any individual, believes is acceptable.

I proposed in an earlier report that if nations cannot find sufficient common ground over endurance, then a sensibly negotiated amicable divorce is better than an unholy bustup and more bloodletting.

It is still far too early, in my view, to travel this road, but it may well end up in the in-tray of whoever holds the presidency from December.

If it comes to a split, surely all the president and the FEI can do is try to negotiate a divorce that delivers the best result for endurance.

It is possible, of course, that Haya may use her influence to try to bring this controversy to a faster conclusion. I do not believe that any nation – in the Middle East or elsewhere – thinks that a split is desirable. If every nation can accept that, then it seems to me that everyone should accept the need for compromise.

Indeed, the announcement today that Haya’s husband, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, is backing a task force to start work immediately to find practical solutions to the issues is incredibly positive.

The Middle East is certainly not blind to the issues and the sheikh’s backing of the task force is, in my view, a clear sign that global unity remains the preferred option among these nations.

But even if the endurance issue is resolved, there will be plenty more to occupy the mind of the next president.

Questions still hang over the venue for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games. The process has been painful to watch, with the whole bidding process thrown open again in the middle of last year.

We are now down to Lexington, Kentucky, and Bromont/Montreal, Canada, with the prospect of a final decision in the next few months.

Is this a harbinger of things to come? Staging the Games is costly, and the requirements stringent. Stressed taxpayers around the world seem increasingly reluctant to dig deep to host major global sporting events, leaving commercial interests to meet an increasing share of the cost.

This proved too big a hurdle for the Wellington, Florida, bid by Equestrian Sport Productions, which stuck by its major venue sponsor, Rolex, over the FEI’s big sponsor, the rival watchmaker Longines.

The 2018 WEG process has been so tortuous, that one wonders whether this will become the “new normal”. Is it perhaps the case that hosts need more support, more leeway, or that efforts should be made to make them cheaper to run? I think we are beyond putting the whole see-sawing nature of this process down to bad luck.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil’s Rio de Janiero does not pose quite the same headache, but the South Americans are certainly causing the IOC more than a few palpitations as they prepare.

Greenwich Park, where equestrian events were held for London 2012. Having horse sports in the cite center is a rare occurrence at the Olympics.
Greenwich Park, where equestrian events were held for London 2012. Having horse sports in the cite center is a rare occurrence at the Olympics.

Equestrian sport in the 2012 London Olympics proved to be a spectacular showpiece, with its glorious Greenwich Park setting in the heart of the city. It was close to the heart of the Olympic action and proved to be a complete turnaround from the Beijing Games.

It would be too much to hope for another London experience in Rio. Equestrian sport will not be front-and-centre this time around, and nothing could compare to Greenwich Park. That is not to say that Rio will not be a success, but it is unlikely to enjoy the same international profile, which will be a disappointment for some.

The bigger issue centres on equestrian sport’s place within the Olympic movement.

Yes, London was a triumph, but I think some member nations underestimate the scope and potential threat to equestrian sport’s inclusion at future Games from this year’s wide-ranging review being conducted by the IOC.

It’s not simply an “in or out” scenario. One proposal suggests giving the host more say over which sports are included. Given the biosecurity issues around moving horses globally, it is easy to see equestrian sports are well up the hit list for any number of nations.

One wonders, for example, whether China might have exercised such a right in Beijing in 2008 should it have had the option, given that the horse sports were hosted in Hong Kong.

The FEI Bureau is pushing to form an Olympic Council to protect and promote the interests of equestrian sports within the Olympic movement. This is a smart and forward-thinking move, in my view.

Haya, with her strong international profile and presence on the IOC, is ideally positioned to promote these interests, but success is far from guaranteed and it is ridiculous to lump this responsibility on one person.

Ongoing Olympic inclusion is an issue for global equestrian sport, not the president alone. An FEI Olympic Council can help shoulder that responsibility and work on a much broader front that just one individual.

There are members of the IOC – both honorary members and those with voting rights – whose backgrounds would suggest support for equestrian sport. They are potential allies who may be persuaded to lobby and promote the interests of equestrian sport within the IOC.

The loss of Olympic status would be a huge blow to international equestrianism, with funding in many nations linked to athletes’ buildup and participation in the Games.

Make no mistake with the Olympics. The status quo no longer applies. The number of sports at the Games is now capped at 26 and, even without any reforms this year, a new system is already in place which provides the IOC with the option of dropping sports, especially those underperforming, in favour of new ones. Squash, for one, is pressing for inclusion.

The Olympic Horses jump from Greenwich.
The Olympic Horses jump at Greenwich, London 2012.

What could be dropped? Wrestling, a sport dating back to the ancient Olympics, is well aware it is on a tightrope in this regard. It had to see off strong challenges from squash and baseball-softball to remain in the 2020 Olympic programme.

Haya will still be FEI president and therefore an IOC member when these reforms – in whatever form they may ultimately take – go to an IOC vote in Monaco early in December.

Her unwavering determination to keep equestrian sport in the Olympic movement is beyond question. The Dubai General Assembly was moved a month later to fall after the IOC meeting, getting Haya to the IOC with a vote.

A few days later, she will join FEI member nations for the General Assembly. It has the potential to be a moment of triumph, or a moment of despair.

Should the Olympic flame have dimmed, there will be a whole series of flow-on effects for the FEI and its president as the consequences ripple through equestrian nations.

The broad international support for Haya to stay is unquestionable, but the challenges ahead are not only formidable, they involve very high stakes.

The support for Haya probably has several motivations. Some will simply see a president who has performed well, with a good international profile and powerful connections, who is well placed to carry global horse sport forward.

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

The support of some may be rooted in concerns over the future, not limited to the issues described above. For example, some smaller nations worry that a European president runs the risk of a more Euro-centric FEI developing.

They would need to be convinced a European candidate for the role has a global view of equestrian sport, and understands the concerns of smaller nations.

This is an ongoing balancing act for any FEI president, with the need to present horse sports as a global enterprise, while acknowledging that the powerhouse for the key disciplines is within Europe.

So, will Haya stay or will she go?

We can only speculate, of course, but it is safe to conclude it will not be a simple decision for her, and there will undoubtedly be personal considerations, with a husband, children, and other responsibilities to take into consideration.

This month’s Extraordinary General Assembly will provide the chance for national federations to express their support and, for many, encourage her to stand again.

On my understanding, she has until June to declare her intentions.

Will she seek re-election? No amount of crystal-ball-gazing will answer that, but one thing is clear: the world of equestrian politics is far from mundane, with more twists and turns than a challenging endurance track.


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