FIFA Cares About Cash, Not Players

By allowing a refugee soccer player to remain stranded in Thailand, soccer’s governing body is scoring another own goal.

Hakeem al-Araibi, a former Bahrain national team soccer player with refugee status in Australia, is escorted by immigration police to a court in Bangkok on Dec. 11, 2018.
Hakeem al-Araibi, a former Bahrain national team soccer player with refugee status in Australia, is escorted by immigration police to a court in Bangkok on Dec. 11, 2018. (LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)

When the soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi landed at Bangkok airport with his wife at the end of last November, he did not expect to spend his honeymoon in jail or become the central figure in an international incident testing relationships between Thailand, Bahrain, and Australia—and the ability of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, to prioritize athlete welfare over its own internal politics.

Araibi, a 25-year-old refugee and permanent resident of Australia, fled Bahrain in 2014 after being arrested and tortured for his alleged role in the 2011 protests in the Gulf state. A Bahraini judge sentenced Araibi to 10 years in prison in absentia.

His conviction was based on an alleged coerced confession from his brother, Emad, who said he and his brother were part of a group of 150 protesters who vandalized a police station. A flaw in the prosecution’s case is that Araibi played in a soccer match broadcast live on television at the time he was accused of taking part in the attack.

Araibi was playing with an Australian club team at the time of his arrest in Bangkok. The Australian government, which is notorious for refusing refugee status to many seemingly legitimate asylum-seekers, had found his claim to be in fear for his life credible enough to grant him refugee status in 2017.

Thai authorities swooped on Araibi at Bangkok’s airport in response to an Interpol-issued red notice—effectively an international arrest warrant—generated by Bahraini authorities. The Bahrainis demanded Araibi be extradited to his country of origin, even though he was traveling to Thailand on an Australian-issued refugee travel document. Complicating matters is the fact that Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, meaning that it does not technically have the same international legal obligations to protect refugees that Australia and other signatories have.

Still, Araibi remains in detention until Thai authorities decide which direction to send him—back to Bahrain or to Australia. Meanwhile, Interpol has lifted the red notice amid questions of its initial legitimacy; Interpol policy states no warrant can be issued against a refugee by a country they fled. Australia has called for Araibi’s return to its territory, but so far to no avail. “I don’t want to stay here,” Araibi told the Guardian after he was detained in Bangkok. “I’m a refugee in Australia. I’m scared of the Bahraini government. … They will kill me. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. My life will end if I go to Bahrain.”

The Bahraini government told the Guardian that charges against Araibi were “terrorism-related” but fears for his life were unfounded. “Activists claiming to speak on his behalf suggest his life is in danger if he returns … but he has only been sentenced to imprisonment,” a Bahraini government spokesman said.

The issue has become a priority for Australia’s government. Officials from its Bangkok embassy have visited Araibi on several occasions since his November arrest, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne raised the issue during a face-to-face meeting in Bangkok in early January with her Thai counterpart, Don Pramudwinai.

“We are very concerned about his detention and very concerned about any potential for the return of Mr. al-Araibi to Bahrain,” said Payne, who believes if Thailand returned Araibi to Bahrain it would contravene his rights under international human rights law. But given Thailand’s status as a refugee convention nonsignatory, it might argue it has no such obligation to protect his rights.

The case is the second time in recent months in which Thai authorities have been involved in attempts to forcibly return people to Gulf states they have fled fearing persecution. A Saudi teenager, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, was on her way via a tourist visa to Australia, where she planned to claim refugee status, when a Saudi diplomat was able to take her passport at Bangkok’s airport.

Qunun, fearing her family would kill her for renouncing Islam, was eventually allowed to leave Thailand for Canada, where she was granted asylum. But Araibi, despite already holding refugee status, is not receiving any such similar clarity from the Thais. Bahrain appears determined to see its demands met, relying on a strong personal relationship between the ruling families of Thailand and Bahrain.

A pivotal player in the situation is Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC)—the organization that governs soccer across Asia—and a vice president of FIFA. A call by FIFA for Araibi to return to Australia and calls by professional footballers’ unions around the world to address the case have been met with silence from both Sheikh Salman and the AFC (which are in effect one and the same).

This is no probably no coincidence. Sheikh Salman is Bahraini, an extended family member of Bahrain’s ruling family, and was directly criticized by Araibi for not defending athletes who were arrested and allegedly tortured by government authorities for their involvement in the 2011 protests. He holds enough influence to get Bahraini officials to stand down and rally AFC support for the player but has privately said that, in this particular case, “sport and politics should not mix.” Araibi and those fighting to free him should therefore expect no assistance from the Bahraini sheikh and the AFC.

The sheikh may be using his public silence to weigh up where his political ambitions lie—at home or abroad. He ran to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in 2015, but his campaign was soured by publicity about his 2011 inaction and further allegations he actively assisted in identifying athletes who had participated in protests—allegations he denied. He is up for re-election as AFC president later this year and is believed to still harbor ambitions to take FIFA’s top job from the incumbent Swiss Gianni Infantino—an ascent to world soccer’s summit that would be a huge achievement for a Bahraini.

Yet inaction on Araibi’s plight may come with a cost to Sheikh Salman and other senior administrators in world soccer. Brendan Schwab, the executive director of the World Players Association, an umbrella group of unions that represents professional soccer players, NFL, NHL, rugby, and Australian rules football players, warned of severe consequences within the sport if Araibi was not returned to Australia.

“The world is watching to see how the highest officials within FIFA, the AFC, and football federations in Thailand, Bahrain, and Australia are addressing this human rights crisis,” Schwab told Foreign Policy, suggesting sports administrators will face repercussions from professional players around the world if they do not support Araibi’s return to Australia—and that the Thai and Bahraini national soccer federations could face sanctions, too. “Any custodian of the game who fails to act to protect Hakeem will therefore fail football and must surely render his or her position untenable.”


Matthew Hall writes about politics, sports, and culture for The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, and South China Morning Post. Twitter: @matthew_hall