contributor perspectives

The Plight of a Bahraini Soccer Player Highlights the Connection of State and Sport

Tolga Ozyurtcu
Board of Contributors
8 MINS READFeb 11, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi, who is facing extradition from Thailand to Bahrain, arrives for a court hearing in Bangkok on Feb. 4, 2019.
(LAUREN DECICCA/Getty Images)

Soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi is facing extradition from Thailand to Bahrain. On Feb. 4, a Bangkok court gave al-Araibi, who has refugee status in Australia, 60 days to prepare a defense against extradition.

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Highlights
  • International attention surrounds the case of Hakeem al-Araibi, a former Bahraini national team player who is facing extradition from Thailand to Bahrain.
  • Al-Araibi's status as a refugee in Australia is putting pressure on FIFA, the international soccer governing body, to align its actions with its stated values on human rights.
  • The role of Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, as FIFA's vice president is raising questions about the political independence of organizations that govern sports.

Editor's Note: On Feb. 11, Thai officials told BBC Thai that Thailand had freed Hakeem al-Araibi after Bahrain withdrew its extradition request. 

As the world's major soccer leagues pass the midpoint of their seasons, title races are heating up, with many of the usual suspects making the headlines. But in recent weeks, the likes of Sergio Aguero, Paul Pogba and Lionel Messi have been joined — if not overshadowed — by another name: Hakeem al-Araibi. It's likely that even the most diehard fans had not heard of al-Araibi before November. After all, the former Bahraini national team player currently plies his trade as a defender for semi-professional Pascoe Vale Football Club, stalwarts of the second tier of Australian soccer. Unfortunately for al-Araibi, his newfound international recognition has nothing to do with his soccer skills, even if his fate is shaping up to be one of the major international sports stories of the year.

According to international observers, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, al-Araibi is a political refugee, wrongfully facing extradition from Thailand to Bahrain. To Bahraini officials, al-Araibi is an outspoken enemy of the state who must serve a 10-year prison sentence for vandalizing a police station during a 2012 protest in Manama. A court appearance on Feb. 4 felt like the boiling point of a simmering international response, with the shackled athlete pleading to supporters and Thai authorities not to send him to Bahrain. For now, al-Araibi remains in prison, having been granted 60 days to prepare a defense against the Bahraini request for extradition.

What's Led to This Situation

As with many such cases, both sides dispute the events leading to al-Araibi's 2014 arrival in Australia. Bahrain asserts that he was part of a crowd that set fire to a police station in November 2012. This behavior, Bahrain says, fits al-Araibi's criticism of the government during 2011 demonstrations that saw Bahrain pulled into the region's Arab Spring. Al-Araibi is Shiite, as are most Bahrainis, while the ruling royal family is Sunni. He was arrested in 2012 and held for 45 days, during which time al-Araibi says he was tortured. He fled Bahrain in 2014. A Bahraini court convicted him in absentia in 2014 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Al-Araibi says he could not have been present at the attack on the police station because he was playing in a televised soccer match when the attack took place. Game footage and testimonials from other players appear to confirm al-Araibi's story. Bahraini officials maintain that he could have played and still taken part in the attack. Al-Araibi further claims that he was implicated in the alleged arson by a forced confession from his brother.

After leaving Bahrain, al-Araibi traveled through Iran, Malaysia and Thailand before arriving as an asylum seeker in Australia in 2014, where he was granted refugee status in 2017. By 2015, he was back on the pitch, playing for Green Gully of Melbourne. In 2016, from the relative safety of his new home, he criticized Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, for his alleged role in the torture of athletes who participated in the Arab Spring uprisings. Sheikh Salman was then seeking the presidency of FIFA. Though he lost, he remains a vice president of the international soccer governing body and is president of the Asian Football Confederation, one of FIFA's six subordinate associations.

The Current Situation

Fast forward to Nov. 27. Al-Araibi and his wife traveled from Australia to Thailand for a belated honeymoon, where he was arrested in the Bangkok airport on an Interpol Red Notice issued at the request of Bahrain. Some observers have suggested that it was naive — or plain foolish — for al-Araibi to take such a trip and put himself at risk. Al-Araibi says Australian authorities told him he would be safe to travel, which may have been the case when he made his plans. In the glut of Western media coverage that has followed al-Araibi's arrest, a timeline has emerged that suggests Bahrain targeted him after he made his travel arrangements. Fingers have been pointed at various authorities, but it appears Bahraini officials didn't ask Interpol to issue the notice until after Thailand had approved al-Araibi's visa, raising the question of who alerted them to his plans. Interpol has since lifted the Red Notice because it violated the organization's rules prohibiting it from issuing such notices on behalf of a country seeking the arrest of a political dissident.

The legitimacy of his arrest notwithstanding, al-Araibi's plight has turned into an international incident that illustrates the intersection of geopolitics and sports. The Thai government and courts have been thrust into the spotlight and into a bit of a juggling act. While keen to maintain their national sovereignty, Thai authorities have been sensitive to the international outcry demanding they release al-Araibi. Bahrain has had the easiest line to toe: They want their man. That Bahrain and Thailand enjoy a healthy trade relationship complicates things.

Al-Araibi's plight has turned into an international incident that illustrates the intersection of geopolitics and sports.

On the other side, Australia has emerged as the voice of the West, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison reaching out multiple times to his Thai equivalent, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, asking for the release and return of al-Araibi. While some in Australia have called for a tourist boycott of Thailand, Morrison would prefer to resolve the situation diplomatically and efficiently, and focus his attention on upcoming Australian elections. Elections also loom in Thailand, adding yet another layer to the political considerations surrounding al-Araibi's fate.

Further complicating matters for Thailand is its historically less-than-stellar reputation in matters of immigration, extradition and refugees. That reputation also made international headlines last month with the case of Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, an 18-year-old Saudi who said she was fleeing her abusive family when Thai authorities arrested her and began extradition proceedings. Thanks to a viral social media campaign and international pressure, Alqunun was eventually granted asylum in Canada. In the wake of the Alqunun case, the Thai government has signaled a policy shift, with a new head of immigration declaring that refugees will no longer be sent home "involuntarily" and that, going forward, Thailand will follow international norms. This is a big change for a nation that is not a signatory to the United Nations' convention on refugees. While this policy shift would seem to clear the path for al-Araibi's release, Thai officials maintain that the (now lifted) Red Notice must be considered an outstanding warrant.

Sports, Human Rights and Politics

As with many high-profile extradition cases, the usual cast of human rights organizations and observers have sounded off on behalf of al-Araibi. And given his profession, his claims of athlete torture and suppression, and Sheikh Salman's political and sporting positions of power, the international sporting community has joined the fray. Many are calling for the International Olympic Committee and FIFA to exert pressure on both Thailand and Bahrain, hoping that a threat of sanctions will lead to al-Araibi's release. The IOC and FIFA are predictably hesitant to act, forever trying to maintain their official positions as non-political actors. FIFA is in a particularly tough spot. It has come under fire in recent years for questions of human rights in World Cup host countries such as Russia and Qatar. In response, FIFA introduced its first official human rights policy in 2017, noting that "FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights." For many in the international sporting community, al-Araibi's case has become a litmus test for FIFA to align its actions with its stated values.

Finally, a few closing thoughts on the many hats worn by Sheikh Salman. His political and sporting statuses seem to undermine the governing principles of organizations like FIFA and the IOC, whose members and officers are supposed to operate independently of state governments. Technically, Sheikh Salman is in the clear: He holds no official political office in Bahrain. FIFA can simply overlook the fact that he is a part of the House of Khalifa, which has ruled Bahrain since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1971. While it's debatable that sport governance was ever truly apolitical, this sort of head-in-the-sand response has essentially been the norm since the end of World War II, when the IOC admitted a Soviet Olympic Committee that made little effort to conceal its Politburo ties. Scanning the landscape of the myriad bodies and sub-bodies that make up global sports governance, you'll find no shortage of individuals connected with national governments. No matter how loudly the leadership of FIFA, the IOC and other groups proclaim their political independence, cases like al-Araibi's will come along now and then to remind us that international sports organizations can and do affect non-sport geopolitics, despite their claims otherwise.

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