What does Princess Haya’s departure mean for horse sport?

FEI National Federations voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing a third presidential term.
FEI national federations vote overwhelmingly in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April in favour of allowing a third presidential term. © FEI

The world of horse sport has today been left to ponder how the international equestrian landscape is likely to look beyond the FEI presidency of Princess Haya.

The princess today announced her decision not to seek a third term at the helm of the world governing body for equestrian sport.

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

The announcement is sure to come as a surprise to the majority of national federations, who backed her strongly at an Extraordinary General Assembly in Switzerland late in April.

Haya was elected on a platform of reform nearly eight years ago. She has been a hands-on president who modernised the FEI and had a major hand in growing the commercial elements of top-level horse sport.

Soon after taking office, she successfully lobbied for a constitutional change to limit the presidency to two four-year terms, which she felt was enough for anyone in the role. It would, she argued, remove any risk that presidents might gain a sense of entitlement in the role.

National federations saw much to like in their president. She was elected on to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), where she has proven to be an effective advocate for horse sport.

She is exceptionally well connected and that has been of immense benefit to the FEI over the years. Quite simply, Haya moves in circles well beyond the reach of any FEI president who may ultimately be chosen from the ranks.

Most sporting organisations can only dream of having a president with such a high international profile and royal connections.

She was crucial, too, in landing lucrative multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals for the FEI.

The FEI was for many years a eurocentric organisation and many smaller nations liked that the presidency was held by someone outside that region. Many felt they had an ally in Haya.

These are all valid and sensible reasons that explain the overwhelming show of support for the princess at the Extraordinary General Assembly.

For some nations, there is perhaps an element of fear over what the future might hold without her at the helm.

Middle Eastern interests have been major sponsors of global horse sport in recent years. It is impossible not to wonder how this will ultimately play out.

Haya will relinquish her position within the IOC and this is another concern – one fewer voice advocating for horse sport at the highest levels of Olympic sport. There are no guarantees that the next president of the FEI will be voted on to the IOC.

The endurance storm over welfare concerns and high fracture rates in desert racing has unquestionably generated tensions between Middle Eastern and European federations. It must surely have helped considerably to have had a president who could bridge that divide.

I think there are fears, too, among some federations that the FEI might again become eurocentric. Europe is, of course, the powerhouse of equestrian sport, and the great majority of presidents since the FEI’s formation in 1921 have been from within its borders.

Indeed, aside from Haya’s tenure, the presidency has been from outside Britain and mainland Europea only once before, when an American general, Guy Henry, held the role for five years in the 1930s.

Princess Haya has signalled she will not seek a third term as FEI president. Photo: FEI
Princess Haya has signalled she will not seek a third term as FEI president. © FEI

In my view, any candidates from Europe will have to satisfy many smaller federations around the globe that they will not lose sight of the need to grow horse sport globally and provide the kind of support necessary to keep improving standards in the far flung reaches of the FEI empire.

Yes, there have been controversies. The fuss over the so-called progressive drugs list immediately comes to mind, and the doping and welfare controversy in Middle Eastern endurance has been uncomfortably close to home for the princess.

She has certainly felt the chill media breeze at times, but in reality no controversy has ever come close to derailing her widespread support among national federations.

The level of support shown for Haya at the Extraordinary General Assembly suggested she would have romped in for a third term, with only one challenger, Swiss candidate Pierre Genecand, declaring an intention to stand thus far.

Haya’s decision to go is sure to open the way for more candidates and, most likely, a hotly contested race. Candidates have until September 1 to get their paperwork into the FEI.

The position has been held for the last 60 years by individuals of royal blood. Whilst it is possible a royal candidate will emerge to stand, it would seem more likely that the role – it is an unpaid position – will be filled by a long-standing and well-respected administrator from one of the world’s national federations, very possibly already well versed in the workings of the FEI.

Candidates must be nominated by a national federation. There are certainly no obvious successors at this early stage.

Should national federations be surprised by Haya’s decision?

She talks of growing challenges to meet her humanitarian goals amid growing tensions in the Middle East. She talks of her two young children and understandably wants to be there for them as they grow up.

There was an expectation among national federations that she would stand again, but Haya has been clear throughout that she had some thinking to do on the question. For national federations and her many supporters, it may well have been a case of hearing what they wanted to hear and not what they were being told.

I can still recall my own confusion on the night of the Extraordinary General Assembly. I had headed down to the office to watch it on FEI TV, which was streaming it live. I went online and a couple of minutes later the screen flickered into life and live footage started rolling.

The princess left the room for the brief debate and returned to the auditorium after 103 of the 109 national federations represented at the gathering either in person or by proxy had backed the extension of the presidential term.

It was clear the princess was moved by the level of support shown for her. She clearly chose her words carefully.

“I had previously believed that the person in charge of the FEI should have a term of eight years. I have always tried to listen to what you have to say – sometimes well, sometimes not so well. This time I am listening,” she told delegates. She assured them she was committed to the role.

She continued: “I’m very honoured for the opportunity you’ve given me to be available as a future president of the FEI for a third term. I don’t want to go further than that today because I do believe there’s the possibility that there’ll be other candidates and I believe they should be given the opportunity to come forward. But at the same time you have my commitment to you.”

My own interpretation of that was that Haya would seriously consider standing again. I wrote a story saying that delegates had opened the door to allow her a third term as president.

A few minutes later an FEI press release landed with the headline: “Princess Haya signals intention to stand for re-election as FEI President”.

Perhaps I had interpreted her comments too conservatively, I thought. I changed the story to say she would seek a third term.

No doubt there was cause for some celebration that evening at the formal FEI cocktail party. The princess had undoubtedly hinted strongly she would seriously consider a third term and national federations were surely buoyed by the outcome of the special assembly and the response of the princess. That surely was justification to have a lemonade or two.

Just a few days later, she spelled out her position clearly in an interview, confessing there was one compelling reason for the careful nature of her remarks – she had yet to discuss it with her family.

“I understand that the national federations have gone to extraordinary lengths, and it would have been ungrateful of me not to indicate that I was also prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to continue to serve them.

“I have not been involved in this process, and I did not even want to discuss the possibility of serving a third term with my family before the Extraordinary General Assembly.

“I do know that my family will support me in anything that I want to do personally, but that said, it is still only natural that I need to talk to them about it, as a matter of respect.

“Also, out of respect for the FEI, and any other potential candidates, it is only correct to allow the natural process to now take place and wait until the formal date for presidential candidates to come forward.

“I know there are good people out there who can do the job, probably far better than me. The point is, I am not willing to make any conclusive statement now which might prevent them making themselves known.”

Haya stressed that she valued the belief in her expressed by the national federations’ vote.

“When the time comes I will make a formal statement,” she said.

The rest, as they say, is history. The princess has put her family first, and undoubtedly has a burning desire to help her people amid growing unrest across the Middle East.

Come December, the FEI must march on under a new president.

Let the campaign begin.

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