‘Sports integrity’: The surreptious Saudi campaign to steal the World Cup away from Qatar

Currently, a battle is going on between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, one that is affecting international football as well. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia wants to take the World Cup away from Qatar in 2022. The “Foundation for Sports Integrity” was launched in a lavish setting in London in May with buzz words about “transparency” and “corruption” that made several participants ask about the source of the money. Two of them were Andreas Selliaas and Jan Jensen*, who have tried to track the secret backers of the new initiative. Jim Waterson of the Guardian also weighs in with additional facts. Interestingly, with regard to awarding the FIFA World Cup 2026, which was announced later in Moscow in July, Saudi Arabia backed the winning, so-called “United” bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico, while Qatar backed the Morocco bid.

Panel discussion at the FFSI conference | Andreas Selliaas

(London, Updated 28 June) – The Foundation for Sports Integrity (FFSI) was launched at the fashionable Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square in London on 31 May. The founder of the FFSI is Jaimie Fuller, the Chairman of SKINS, one of the persons behind the initiative New FIFA Now and a familiar face to those attending Play the Game conferences.

Jaimie Fuller

Jaimie Fuller, who hosted the conference, has said the main funding of the event came on the condition of anonymity | Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Foundation For Sports Integrity

By launching a new foundation, Fuller intends to put more emphasis on sports governance and integrity. But still one question looms: What is it for and who is the sponsor of this new foundation?

According to the FFSI website, the Foundation’s aim is “to fund research into sports corruption and related matters, develop campaigns to inform and educate individuals and organisations, and stage events to discuss and highlight wrongdoings by the custodians of sport”.

The big question, however, after the launch was who is funding the Foundation, partly because the cost of the launch must have been huge and partly because it was hard to get information about who were the backers of Jaimie Fuller’s initiative. It would seem obvious that an initiative that demands integrity and transparency in sports also displays the same qualities in its own business.

The list of invited speakers at the conference at the Four Seasons was impressive, with a Skype interview with the Russian whistle-blower, Grigory Rodchenkov, former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, as the main attraction.

Talking to us from his hiding in the US and wearing a balaklava and sun glasses in order not to be recognised, he told participants that one of the players on the Russian national football team in the World Cup in Russia was on his list of 34 footballers taking part in the organised Russian doping program. Later it was known, through the media that the player was Rubin Kazan defender Ruslan Kambolov, named in Russia’s preliminary squad before the World Cup in Russia but later was left out of the final selection, officially because of an injury.

Some of the topics under discussion were

  • “FIFA Undermining the Beautiful Game”, questioning the lack of public confidence in FIFA (panellists Damian Collins, Hope Solo and Jerome Champagne),
  • “An Exercise in Corruption: The World Cup Process”, questioning the selection of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts in 2018 and 2022 (panellists Harold Mayne-Nicholls, Simon Johnson, Andrew Jennings and Jens Weinreich),
  • “Sports Responsible for Safeguarding Human Rights?”, with strong emphasis on the human rights situation in Qatar (panellists Geoffrey Robertson, Jaimie Fuller, Alan Mendoza and Husain Haggaini) and
  • “The Future of FIFA: What Could and Should be Done?”, also with a strong focus on Qatar (panellists Bonita Mersiades, Phillippe Auclair, Greg Dyke and Louis Saha).

With such profiles discussing the many faults of FIFA and Qatar and the lack of transparency in international football in one of the poshest hotels in London providing food and non-alcoholic beverages for free, you would think that journalists from all over the world would be flocking to the event. That was not the case.

Many of us learned about this conference by accident, and there was not much promotion of the event before the big day. Both the foundation, the conference and its website seemed put together on short notice and even a month after the launch there is no link to the official programme of the day or any information about the trustees or people that are part of the FFSI organisation.

On its website it only says: “The Foundation will be funded by trusts, private companies and the general public who can support us through our crowdfunding and donation platforms in due course”.

A Saudi connection?
The sparse information about the benefactors, trustees and other back players of this novel initiative made many of us ask, while walking around eating finger food in the lobby of Four Seasons: Why this conference and who’s paying for this?

According to the Companies House (register of companies in the UK), the FFSI was established on 30 April 2018 and the Company Director is Philip Hales, an unfamiliar name in the world of sports. Jaimie Fuller is the Chairman of the Foundation. And that is pretty much the information we have.

The absence of information caused a lot of rumours, and many suspected the Saudis to be behind the whole thing. Not only because of the increased activities of the Saudis in international sports against their political adversary Qatar, but also because there were other factors linking this conference to the Saudis:

The conference venue Four Seasons is partly owned by Saudi Arabian investors. Out of the Middle East, only Saudi Arabian friendly news media (Al Arabiya and a few others) were covering the conference. And the programme had a strong focus on the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 in all panels throughout the day.

After the conference, in its newsletters and social media activities, the Foundation has focused mainly on the Human Rights situation in Qatar, which was also the main subject during the day at the Four Seasons. Later, the FFSI has tweeted other stories as well, but it left the impression that Qatar was and still is its main concern. Like it is for Saudi Arabia these days.

Political battles in Qatar and London conferences

Blatter announces Qatar

Currently, a big battle is going on between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in international politics, a battle that has affected international football as well. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia wants to take the World Cup away from Qatar in 2022. Conferences like the one being held at the Four Seasons might help create an opinion against Qatar, reinforcing an already sceptical view of Qatar since the country won the right to hold the World Cup in 2022.

The Chairman of the FFSI, Jaimie Fuller, was asked several times by several journalists attending the conference about who paid for all of this, but he would not tell, citing that the benefactor(s) were not ready to go public.

We have seen documentation that a company called Akta Group Ltd helped organise the conference. According to Companies House, the company is controlled by a Romanian woman called Tatiana Gisca. She is married to Khalid al-Hail, a Qatari citizen and the founder of the opposition party Qatar National Democratic Party. Al-Hail is a mysterious guy and he claims to be a cousin of the current Qatari emir.

According to The Middles East Eye (A Qatar friendly newspaper) he is described as a member of one of Qatar’s ‘founding families’ who escaped in 2014 after being tortured for 22 days. Further, he is understood to split his time between London and Monaco, his friends call him “the sheikh” and he is said to be worth a “considerable sum”. However, records at Companies House show that al-Hail has been involved in a string of short-lived technology and media companies after moving to London.

Together with al-Hail, two members of the British Monarchist Society and a fourth person, used to own a communications agency called Orb and Sceptre Communications Ltd.

In September last year, Akta Group and Khalid al-Hail organised a conference in London with a strong negative focus on Qatar, very similar to the FFSI conference.

According to Buzzfeed and Middle East Eye (a Qatar-friendly publication), the Register of Members’ Financial Interests of the British Parliament showed that Daniel Kawczynski, a former adviser to prime minister David Cameron, received a fee of 15,000 pounds from Akta Group Ltd for advising and then speaking at the “Qatar, Global Security & Stability” conference, held on 14 September last year at InterContinental Hotel in North Greenwich.

Buzzfeed also revealed that Iain Duncan Smith, who led the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003 and later served as a minister under David Cameron, accepted £4,000 from Akta Group Ltd. for speaking at the event and the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown was paid a similar fee by Akta Group to appear at the conference.

The September 2017 conference, saw a string of influential speakers attack Qatar’s poor human rights record, alleged support for terrorist groups, and relationship with regional rival Iran, according to Buzzfeed.

We have learned that also the speakers at the FFSI launch were paid with various amounts between 1000 and 10,000 pounds, we were told. There is nothing wrong with paying speakers at a conference, but the generous scale of the fees underlines the calls for transparency.

Non-disclosure
Jaimie Fuller will not disclose much on whose supporting him and will not answer whether the Foundation has any links to the opposition in Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

“I’m unable to disclose the name/s of the benefactor/s as per their requirement for anonymity. I’ve googled the name (Khalid Al-Hail) you’ve proposed and I see that he’s been very outspoken,” says Jaimie Fuller when we ask him whether Khalid al-Hail is one of the benefactors of the foundation and conference.

Further, Fuller will not answer whether the Akta Group Ltd., run by Tatiana Gisca, took part in the organisation of the conference.

“As far as payments being made to speakers is concerned, it’s not unusual to pay speakers’ fees and travel expenses,” says Fuller.

Associated Press journalist Rob Harris questioned FFSI on Twitter after the launch:

“Organisation called Foundation for Sports Integrity held its 1st event in London today. Some interesting speakers, including doping whistleblower Rodchenkov via video. But some speakers berated transparency issues in football – while the foundation itself won’t say who funds it. And the sports integrity event wasn’t held in a cheap venue but a Four Seasons hotel. No word who is paying for it.”

The response from FFSI was not very informative:

“Hi Rob, this Foundation and event was established by @jaimiefuller with @SKINSGB. SKINS funds research into sports corruption, develops campaigns to inform and educate individuals and organisations, and stage events to discuss and highlight wrongdoings by the custodians of sport.”

We are made aware that a representative for a Washington based PR Company, named Bluelight Strategies, after the conference at Four Seasons contacted journalists to help them shed more light on the Human Rights situation in Qatar and to help them getting in touch with FFSI founder Jaimie Fuller for interviews. The message was that it was important not to lose sight on what’s going on in Qatar in all the fuzz around the World Cup in Russia.

Bluelight Strategies were also one of the organisers of the anti-Qatar conference in London in September 2017 and on its website al-Hail figures as one of the clients together with a variety of Israeli organisations.

There seems to be no doubt that the FFSI conference in London is related to the conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but still we don’t know who provided the money for the conference or the Foundation. The unanswered questions cast doubts on the aims of a Foundation claiming to clean up murky deals in sports.

Note: In a previous version of this article, a WhatsApp correspondence with Khalid al-Hail was referenced. This section has now been edited out because the true identity of the person interviewed has been questioned. Play the Game is currently looking into the matter and we sincerely apologise for any inconvenience experienced because of a possible misunderstanding.

*Andreas Selliaas is a Norwegian freelance journalist regularly writing for playthegame.org. Jan Jensen is managing editor and sports commentator at the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.


Football and fat fees: questions raised over funding of sporting conference

Was ‘sports integrity’ event that repeatedly questioned 2022 World Cup decision funded by Qatar rivals? | Jim Waterson, Media editor, Guardian newspaper

An artist’s impression of the Lusail City stadium, designed for the Qatar 2022 World Cup final. Scores of migrant workers toiling in slave-like conditions have reportedly died constructing such monstrosities,

(July 16) – After Russia’s wildly successful World Cup, the eyes of the sporting world have turned to the next host, Qatar – and a recent event in London gave an indication of the scrutiny that lies ahead for the controversial organisers, and of the Middle Eastern diplomatic battle that will shadow the tournament.

Hope Solo at the conference.

Hope Solo at the conference | Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Journalists who attended the launch of the Foundation For Sports Integrity at the Four Seasons hotel were ushered through security to watch a series of panels featuring high-profile guests. The former Manchester United footballer Louis Saha appeared in a discussion alongside the former FA chairman Greg Dyke. Other guests included Damian Collins MP and the former US women’s goalkeeper Hope Solo.

Louis Saha

Louis Saha | David Levene for the Guardian

But as well as the guest list and the glamorous surroundings, there was another striking feature of the event: questions over the funding of the previously unknown organisation, which was unveiling itself at short notice with a lavish conference and a public commitment to stamping out corruption in world sport.

Several guests received fees in the thousands of pounds and stayed in expensive hotels. Substantial sums appeared to have been spent staging the event and producing professional videos of the discussions, which regularly questioned the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

“We believe that sport belongs to the people and should not be exploited by those in positions of authority, be they individuals, officials, corporations or nation states,” the foundation announced in its mission statement. It pledged to fund “research into sports corruption and related matters” and to support whistleblowers.

That was in May. Today, questions remain over who funded the Sports, Politics and Integrity conference given its own commitment to transparency – and whether it was linked to the proxy war between Qatar and regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in an attempt to turn the media against the 2022 hosts.

There is no suggestion that it is illegal to refuse to disclose funding sources.

But even Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington-based publicist who helped book guests and promote the event, highlighted the seeming paradox, telling the Guardian: “It is ironic that they’re all about transparency in sport and yet they’ve not been so transparent in their finances.

“A couple of speakers spoke pro bono but most got paid. If they got flown in, they got flown business class. Fancy hotels. First-rate production. Not a bazillion pounds, but you know, they did it right, they did it nice. It cost money.”

The event was hosted by Jaimie Fuller, an Australian businessman who campaigns for Fifa reform. Fuller has repeatedly declined to identify the main source of funding and there is no detail on the trustees of his organisation.

Despite the lack of transparency, the coverage of the event was substantial. The day before the conference the Sun published an exclusive dossier it had obtained from the foundation and suggested it could force Fifa to reconsider the Qatar decision. News outlets and social media supporters from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates gave substantial coverage, with the UAE’s National suggesting Fifa was under pressure as result. Other coverage appeared on the BBCCNN and dozens of sites including the Guardianwhich published an agency report.

Although the foundation has a remit across all sport, discussion at the conference focused on Doha’s activities. Topics included “an exercise in corruption”, which discussed the selection of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts; a panel featuring Geoffrey Robertson QC which discussed whether sport was responsible for safeguarding human rights, with a focus on Qatar; and two discussions on the future of Fifa which regularly referenced Qatar.

Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher on labour rights in the Gulf, said he was offered a fee by Fuller to appear on a panel.

“I was approached to speak at it, but I asked for assurances it wasn’t Gulf money – it was clear there was a lot of money behind it,” he said. McGeehan also told the organisers he would critique other Gulf nations, not just Qatar.

“Those assurances were given and then two days later I was uninvited. They couldn’t give a reason as to why I wasn’t appearing. It just yells Saudi and UAE money.”

Paperwork obtained by journalists at the Play the Game Foundation and the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, and shared with the Guardian, showed certain conference bookings were made in the name of a British company called Akta Group. The business is run by the wife of Khalid al-Hail, a London-based Qatari who previously organised the Qatar, Global Security and Stability conference, which included a discussion of a “bloodless coup” in his home nation, but has denied receiving funding from either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Last year, Akta paid the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and the BBC journalist John Simpson to attend another conference in a London hotel on the future of Qatar, which was highly critical of the government.

That event was supported by the pro-Saudi Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski, who received £15,000 from Akta for helping to prepare the conference, and the British Monarchist Society’s Thomas J Mace-Archer-Mills – a regular royal pundit who was recently exposed as an American from upstate New York.

Fuller did not directly comment on whether Hail or Akta helped organise his conference but said a major share of the money came “from an individual funder who has made it a condition of funding support that their identity not be disclosed”.

He added: “They have significant private wealth derived personally and there is no funding from any state or government, and I have not been presented with any evidence to the contrary.”

Fuller said he had been invited to help with the conference late in the day as a “means of launching” his foundation, by which time “many logistical arrangements were already in place”.

Both the conference and last year’s Global Security and Stability event received PR support from Rabinowitz, whose Bluelight Strategies firm lists Hail as a client on its website.

Rabinowitz, who said he no longer represents the Qatari, admitted the sports conference funding remained unclear, saying: “I don’t know what the full source of the money is, I just don’t know, besides Jaimie putting seed money in.

“For me it was important that it was not Saudi or Emirati government money. I would have to register with my justice ministry as a foreign agent, even if that government paid Jaimie Fuller and he paid me … I looked at it pretty damn hard and I’m persuaded there was no Saudi or Emirati money.”

When contacted for comment, Hail – who says he was tortured in a Qatari prison after calling for a constitutional monarchy before fleeing to London – suggested the Guardian was taking part in an “orchestrated attempt to fabricate a story against me” designed to play into Doha’s “media propaganda machine”.

When a detailed set of points were put to his lawyer, including suggestions Hail was involved in organising the conference and questions about whether he had ever received financial assistance from either the Saudi or UAE governments, he declined to comment.

Some individuals involved in the event speculated that Fuller was “duped” into hosting it. Rabinowitz described him as “a totally righteous guy in everything he’s done in sport” while the investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who appeared at the conference, vouched for his “good friend” and said “he’s straight”.

“I was asked if I’d go and put the boot into the Qataris,” said Jennings, who has long written about Fifa corruption. “That’s my opinion anyway, that’s not distorting things.”

Fuller said the decision to award the World Cups to Russia and Qatar had been the “subject of much investigation, examination, criticism, commentary, speculation and opinion by thousands of people”.

“I personally have a track record of criticism of Qatar, especially in relation to its abysmal workers’ and human rights record, as well as a track record commenting on sports governance and doping in sport,” he said, insisting the foundation’s work was ongoing, saying it is unconnected to a business of the same which was recently deregistered at Companies House.

“I have no concern that the UAE or Saudi Arabia governments influenced the conference, as I set the programme and the speakers.”

The proxy war in the Middle East has increasingly been fought through attempts to influence the media. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called for the country to shut down its al-Jazeera news network, while Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of pirating its multibillion-dollar live sports TV network, in part to show matches from this year’s World Cup. This month the Saudi government proposed digging a canal along its border with Qatar to turn the nation into an island.

Last year, the Intercept obtained documents which suggested the UAE planned to wage a financial war on Qatar and campaign to force it to share the 2022 World Cup with its neighbours.

Glitzy conferences have long been used by countries – including Qatar during its World Cup bid – to gain positive press coverage.

A spokesperson for Collins said the MP appeared on the panel as a favour: “Damian received no payment for speaking at the event, was not involved in its organisation and was invited by Jamie Fuller who Damian has worked with for many years on the New Fifa Now campaign.”

The Qatari authorities have raised concerns about the event’s funding with some of the speakers. Rabinowitz, however, said it was part of the inevitable geopolitical battle that followed Qatar’s successful, but seemingly corrupt, bid to host the biggest event in football.

“Let’s be honest, Qatar getting the 2022 World Cup is bullshit,” he said.

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