The rocking-chair moment when Princess Haya decided the fate of her presidency

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Princess Haya had even started assembling her campaign team when she decided she would not be serving a third presidential term. Photo: FEI

Princess Haya has described the moment, sitting in a rocking chair watching her young son sleep, that she realised she would be stepping down as FEI president.

The Jordanian princess had been widely expected to seek a third four-year term, after member nations voted overwhelmingly last April at an Extraordinary General Assembly (EGA) in Switzerland to change the rules to allow her a third term.

However, she reveals that as she sat watching her son, her mind was made up.

Her departure yesterday after eight years marks the first time in 60 years that the presidential post has not been filled by a member of a royal family.

“I walked out of that EGA and I had every intention of standing again,” Princess Haya reveals.

“I started buzzing with ideas. I was definitely energised to look forward to the future and started thinking about writing a programme.”

She had even started to assemble her campaign team.

“The only thing was that I remained torn. I kept on the same mindset that I had before the EGA, which was ‘should I or shouldn’t I’.”

That nagging doubt did not diminish with time, she says.

“I think deep in my heart I knew that if it was something that was absolutely right I would have been given the opportunity, jumped at it, and not thought about it again.

“But because there wasn’t something quite right about it, it kept on bothering me, and it wasn’t a light worry; it was definitely a very heavy feeling that there was something wrong and it wouldn’t go away.

“Basically, I was sitting in a rocking chair watching my son sleep; I had just put him to bed. It’s quiet and it’s a good time to think. It wasn’t that I decided not to run, but I knew beyond any doubt that I would not be the next FEI president.

“I didn’t think consciously … ‘I will run or I won’t run’. I just thought, ‘this is not going to happen. It’s not going to be me.’

Nominations for the presidency were due to close within weeks.

“From there I knew I had to move very fast to give enough time to everybody else to be fair to them as well, to set up a good race.”

Princess Haya said she felt an unbelievable sense of relief when she made the decision. “And that also made me realise it was the right thing to do.

“I had a few friends I contacted; people that I really knew I could ask for advice. They all said ‘well done, it was the right decision’.

“I went the next morning to the stables and told my greatest source of truth, the head girl, Lizzie, who has been with me for as long as I can remember, and she said ‘oh, well done’.

“She handed me a broom and said, ‘now get on with it’. That was as long as the drama lasted.”

Princess Haya said she felt confident about the future of the FEI and its governance.

She remained of the view that eight years was enough for an FEI president to serve  – and had successfully lobbied for a constitutional change imposing the limit shortly after her election eight years ago.

“Personally, I’m feeling sad about the end of an era, but I am looking forward to the future. It’s exciting; it’s a change, but probably I’ll be a little bit lost without it.

“I think there comes a time in the week of the General Assembly when you realise, strangely enough, I am not the centre of attention any more, which for any woman is a shock, especially when they’re a princess.

“When I got over that – a small blow – I have been having fun with my friends. I do realise that I have always been part of this [equestrian] life; I’m from it and I’ll return to it.

“There is very much a sense of loss, a bit of personal mourning, but it’s exciting,” she said of her departure. “I am petrified about this housewife idea, though. I have the salmon recipe from the chef in [this] hotel because it seems like I should be able to cook, but I do hear that takeaways in Dubai are very good.”

Asked what she would miss the most, Princess Haya said it was unquestionably the people.

“There is never such a thing as a bricks and mortar legacy. Lots of us like to believe it, but when you come from the desert you realise that everything turns to dust sooner or later, and it’s really the people that keep … good things alive.

“And I think I have been blessed having really good people around me. They are what makes the FEI the great thing it is today. That will never end.”

She said the president’s role had changed beyond recognition over her eight years.

“It might be easier to ask me, ‘how is it the same?’, because that list would probably be much shorter.

The FEI Bureau meeting, chaired by FEI President HRH Princess Haya, in Baku on Thursday.
The FEI Bureau meeting, chaired by FEI President Princess Haya, in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Thursday.

“I think the only thing that is still the same is that it’s about horses. Everything else is different.

“I was really lucky because I stood on a mandate for change and I came at a time when everybody wanted it, so it wasn’t that I was pushing against a closed door.

“And when I slowed down, I felt the current sweep me up on my feet again.”

She talked of the emergence of important new faces within federations, and changes in FEI staff.

“The way we do things is entirely different; the communication levels that we have; the methods that we use. It’s a different atmosphere. It’s can-do. And that’s about everybody who’s a part of it.

“Basically, it’s kind of easy when you’re the president; you keep on encouraging people and they have all the inspiration and all the good ideas and if you try to empower them – not even empower them – just give them the confidence to do what they are thinking, then that’s the job done.”

She felt she was leaving behind a couple of matters of unfinished business.

“There are one or two things I’m personally really annoyed about. I hate the fact the seed money in FEI Solidarity is under $20 million.

“I had [a target of] $20 million for seed money to be raised, but we did set up a whole load of fundraising functions. I believe that will happen, but I would have liked to leave that fund generating enough interest so that that could be used going forward.

“I would have liked to have another two or three top partners in the commercial portfolio, specifically an airline; an official carrier. That was something I was really interested in.”

They had been on her to-do list, but “there’s no good day to stop. You have to pick a day to stop”.

The princess, who little more than a week ago attended her last meeting as a member of the International Olympic Committee, outlined her views on whether horse sport faced any heightened risks to its position within the Olympic fold under the Olympic Agenda 2020 initiative.

The reform programme centres around 40 recommendations, which include lowering the cost of running the Games, increasing flexibility around the sports included, and imposed caps on athlete numbers.

“I think there always was a risk, and there always will be a risk.

“That has to be said in very measured tones and it shouldn’t be taken out of context that that risk exists for us and no other sport, because I think any sport that decides it can be complacent will be in danger.

“The days of having your place in the programme absolutely guaranteed, and mainly the quota numbers that you have absolutely guaranteed as unmoving numbers, are gone.”

fei-flagThis brought pressure on sporting bodies to keep reinventing themselves in order to compete with other international federations. “And in so many ways that’s good. It will improve sport; it will make sports important again, and I think that is something that we all want for our children, and it will force the people who are in charge of the FEI and other international federations in the future to be professional and to really serve the sports that they have.

“I think that is really important.”

She emphasised that there would never be a situation where a sport was specifically targeted.

“The IOC does not work that way … There are no conspiracies; it is done very much on numbers and data.

“I think it is important for the FEI, and most important for the horse community, to keep aware of those things and keep moving with the times.

“So often we’ve been entrenched and set in our old ways,” she said, stressing the need for flexibility within the FEI.

“That’s our ticket to stay in, but I think at the same time the IOC recognises and values the history and tradition of our sport.”

The FEI could face repercussions should it ever be found to be lacking in important areas, she said.

“We do have an edge on gender equality on other international federations and other sports, but we have to update our formats and make sure that we have a top product.”

The princess said she backed the concept of paying the president. The FEI president currently receives no salary or honorarium, and the issue bubbled in the background of the presidential election campaign. The five European candidates were split on the merits of the idea.

“I am absolutely clear that any international federation president should be remunerated,” she said.

“Most of them are, even if they don’t specifically call it remuneration. There are different words for it.”

She said, in her view, paying the president was the sensible, transparent way to do business.

“The other way is to get different packages like per diems, and even spending money on hotels and meals, and hosting people – and that is more of an area that makes me nervous.

“I would much rather see, for the FEI, instead of a president who is living a lifestyle off the organisation, a president who is paid to do a job.”

The princess outlined her own experience.

“In my case, I did have other jobs to do, but I literally had to hand those over to people that we hired in our office, so I actually spent money on other people who were working to cover me in order to maintain enough time to work on the FEI.

“So I think any person will lose an income if they are not remunerated. And the kind of people we are trying to attract are young people – I’m not giving an age bracket there – but basically fresh ideas; dynamic people; people who are very current and relevant in the market; people who have some kind of a commercial handle.

“They have got to be able to inspire the Olympic Committee; they have got to have enough energy to move around the sport and they literally have got to have enough energy to cover the phone,” she said, referring to the challenges presented by time zones in the global equestrian community.

“And it’s a fulltime job, so either you’re prepared to drop what you have, in which case you need to be compensated, or else you need to do a job to make a living at something else.

“I think the only community that will lose will be the FEI if they don’t pay [the president]. I feel very strongly. And if I had stayed another four years it would have been top of my list.

“I thought deeply about it before the Extraorindary General Assembly.”

The FEI, she said, either had to look at a future with a remunerated president or there would always be a fairly small pool of candidates.

“And it is unfair to also look at only people with a title.

“I do think it should be a rumenerated job, and that is not in support of any one candidate or another; it is something I would have done anyway. I think if you get somebody who doesn’t need the remuneration, then it is up to them not to take it, but I do think those people would be few and far between.”

Princess Haya, in her closing remarks yesterday to the General Assembly during the final minutes of her presidency, urged all nations to support De Vos.

She reminded delegates of the one devotion they all shared.

“One thing binds us together – the horse. The horse defines the FEI’s past and the horse will define its future.”

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