The sun is shining and the temperature climbs to around 40 degrees Celsius across the United Arab Emirates at this time of the year.
It is safe to assume that the air conditioning in the Abu Dhabi headquarters of the Emirates Equestrian Federation is set to a much more comfortable level.
Despite that, we are led to believe the federation is still feeling the heat over its interim suspension by the FEI over concerns in the discipline of endurance.
The FEI Tribunal has been told that the ban is having a “huge effect of destabilisation” and had put all equestrian sport in the UAE in danger.
This is grim and unnerving news, indeed, especially given that the region has entered its endurance off-season due to the desert heat, when we might expect the effects of the suspension to be less severe.
We are told, too, that depriving riders of the right to compete under their own flag was a “massive sanction” and a blow to their pride.
All UAE riders outside the sport of endurance are entitled, under the suspension, to compete overseas under the auspices of the FEI, which strikes me as a pretty generous compromise aimed at cutting some slack to riders outside endurance.
On my reading of the situation, only the UAE’s elite endurance riders looking to compete overseas in the northern hemisphere season will be left twiddling their thumbs.
So, what do we know so far?
Thanks to last week’s FEI Tribunal decision, which dealt with the UAE federation’s bid to stay the interim suspension, we know quite a lot more than we did before.
To be clear: the major issues around the case – what exactly the UAE has supposedly been up to and whether this justified a suspension – have yet to be heard.
What we do have are some interesting insights and a pretty good handle on where the respective parties are sitting. Let’s run through this decision and see what we can glean.
On March 12, the FEI told the Emirates federation that it had been suspended with immediate effect, with the FEI Bureau finding that the UAE had failed to follow FEI rules, regulations and/or decisions on “several occasions”.
The letter laid out six separate alleged rule breaches, with only the following details given in the tribunal decision:
- The fatality of a horse competing during a rest period;
- Other horses not complying with the rest periods;
- Not respecting the ages of horses;
- Post mortems issues;
- The CEI3* Endurance Cup in Dubai on January 10 (no other details were given); and
- Not cooperating with the FEI or answering its queries.
The FEI made it clear that the UAE would be welcomed back once it provided some written undertakings about playing by the rules and assurances around horse welfare.
Four weeks later, the UAE lodged an appeal against the suspension. It also sought as a matter of urgency that the bureau’s interim suspension be stayed – set aside, if you will – pending the outcome of the full appeal.
The tribunal subsequently received written submissions from both the UAE and FEI on the question.
The UAE argued that keeping the interim ban in place until the conclusion of the full appeal would cause “irreparable harm” and “would jeopardise the existence of equestrian sport of endurance in the country of the appellant”.
It said the suspension was having a massive impact on the organisation of future events, and that it was hugely destabilising, putting all equestrian sport in the UAE in danger.
It argued that granting a stay was in line with the view of the Court of Arbitration for Sport – the highest global judicial authority for sports cases – where panels often preferred to postpone a sanction rather than having a potentially unjustified sanction in force during proceedings.
The UAE further argued that the effect of the FEI Bureau decision was to basically deprive it of all its rights as a member of the FEI solely on the basis of a written decision of the FEI Bureau, supposedly taken without exchange of written submissions and without a hearing.
The harm caused by the sanction was both irreparable and extremely severe, as the UAE was de facto “shut down” and put “out of game” before the tribunal had the chance to rule on the matter.
It asserted that if the suspension was stayed, the UAE would still have to abide by the rules of the FEI pending the final outcome of proceedings. Setting the ban aside might even help get the issues between the FEI and the UAE sorted, it said.
It certainly sounds grim. The UAE’s account, as described by the tribunal, might lead one to believe that the sky is falling across the Emirates.
Let’s see what the FEI had to say about it all.
In short, it seemed to think that the UAE was somewhat short on evidence to back its claims.
It argued that the UAE had failed to show the required grounds on which the tribunal might chose to set aside the ban. These included showing irreparable harm and satisfying the tribunal that, on the balance of interests, it should be stayed.
The FEI submitted there was no possibility of non-endurance UAE horses or athletes being hindered in any way from participation in international events during the suspension.
It argued that the UAE had not substantiated its claims of irreparable harm, nor given persuasive reasons why equestrian sport in the UAE would be endangered by the decision.
The bureau’s decision was made to protect horse welfare, which was of paramount importance to the FEI. This made the suspension both proportionate and justified, the FEI said.
It said the decision had been the culmination of a long and ultimately unsuccessful consultation process with the UAE federation, which had been told in a letter on Feburary 13 – roughly a month before the suspension – that the bureau was considering sanctions that could include suspension.
Allowing the UAE to regain full membership rights when serious questions regarding its record in relation to the horse welfare and rule compliance in general were to be determined by the tribunal, had the potential to hinder the FEI from safeguarding horse welfare.
It said there was no reason why the FEI and the UAE could not solve the issues in a spirit of sportsmanship and fairness while engaging in discussions about the legally binding agreement as required by the bureau.
The FEI also cited what was termed in the decision as previous non-cooperation, in particular over the UAE federation’s supposed failure to sign a memorandum of understanding previously negotiated between them.
The FEI could not reasonably be expected to proceed on a mutual trust basis with the UAE federation, it was argued.
The Emirates federation and FEI appear at odds over whether the UAE was ultimately given an adequate opportunity to respond to the sanction threat.
The UAE claimed that it had basically been deprived of FEI membership rights solely on the basis of a written decision of the bureau, supposedly taken without exchange of written submissions and without a hearing. It had been de facto “shut down” and put “out of game” before the tribunal had the chance to rule on the appeal.
That was certainly not the FEI’s view. It described the decision as being the culmination of a long and ultimately unsuccessful consultation process with the UAE. It noted also that the UAE had been told in a letter in February that it was considering sanctions, including suspension.
So, what did the FEI Tribunal make of all this?
The panel members, Henrik Arle, Erik Elstad and Pierre Ketterer, noted the February 12 letter from the FEI to the UAE contained a warning over sanctions, including suspension.
The UAE federation was also informed of its right to be heard before the FEI Bureau made its decision. The FEI argued that the federation had chosen not to make an oral or written submission.
The tribunal said the FEI was entitled to suspend any national federation that breached the principles of the statutes, provided the country in question was afforded a right to be heard.
The tribunal noted the dispute over this point, but said that, based on the documents submitted so far, the UAE federation had not established that it missed out on this right. Indeed, the panel noted that the February 13 letter informed it of its right to be heard prior to any bureau decision on any type of sanctions.
Whether the national federation has acted in breach of the principles in the statutes, and whether the bureau’s decision to suspend the UAE was justified in the circumstances, would be decided with the merits of the case, it said.
What of the argument over the irreparable harm caused by the ban that purportedly jeopardised the existence of endurance in the UAE?
The tribunal didn’t buy it – at least not on the submissions received.
“The tribunal understands that no international endurance events are scheduled to take place in the upcoming months, and that the endurance season in the UAE typically runs from October to April.
“As a result the tribunal finds that the appellant has not established urgency, and neither its claim of irreparable harm caused.”
It went on to dismiss the application to have the interim suspension stayed, pending the outcome of the full appeal.
The tribunal did not appear to place much weight on the argument that setting aside the suspension would potentially hasten the parties resolving their differences.
“The appellant has not established as to why the lifting of the suspension would be necessary for the parties to further strive to solve the present dispute.”
There seems little doubt that this round went to the FEI.
I guess it should be acknowledged that the UAE appears to have a single-minded sense of purpose over this whole issue. It clearly feels wronged and goodness knows how far it might go in a bid to prove it.
The case has the potential to go all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
What I struggle to see is any kind of successful end game.
Sure, accepting the suspension would be a permanent mark on its reputation. But potentially battling all the way through the judicial process for potentially the same net result would look a whole lot worse.
And then there is the elephant in the room. There are still many unanswered questions around the mysterious duplication of blocks of results from previous races in a dozen or so endurance races staged in the UAE. The Equestrian Community Integrity Unit is investigating and we await the results.
This fight has the potential to open up on two fronts. It is easy to forget this is actually about horse welfare and sport.