New sports integrity fund may serve Saudi interests and Qatari opposition

Panel discussion at the FFSI conference. Photo: Andreas Selliaas

The “Foundation for Sports Integrity” was recently launched in a lavish setting 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.

(Updated 28 June 2018, 1 pm.)

London.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.

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
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.

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