This is James Montague's article from Issue 32 which will be out at the start of March. You can preorder a copy here.
3 November 2012
The screen fills with static, accompanied by a high-pitched whine. It is followed by jerking multicoloured bars of a test screen before giving way to the grainy images of two teams playing a football match. The video is of terrible quality, but the faces of the players can be seen and their names clearly heard as each is announced by the Arabic commentators. The game is 11 minutes old, the sun has set and the floodlights are on. There don’t seem to be many fans in the stadium, a sand-coloured bowl with a shallow terrace of no more than half a dozen steps. But that shouldn’t be all too surprising. The game is a mid-table second-division encounter in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, between Al Shabab, wearing claret shirts, and Busaiteen Club, dressed all in blue. They are playing at the Muharraq Stadium in Arad, a small town north-east of the country’s capital Manama. Two red and white Bahraini flags have been fastened to a wall either side of the halfway line, directly opposite the camera position. Between the two flags is a banner bearing the face of Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.
Aside from brief periods of Persian, Saudi and British colonial rule, the Khalifa family have been in charge of Bahrain since 1783. But it is the British that had the most recent influence. King Hamad is a military man, educated at private schools in Surrey and Cambridge, and then at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot (the predecessor to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst), before graduating from the famed United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He came to power in 1999 after his father died (of natural causes) amid an uprising. The Khalifas are Sunni Muslims, the vast majority of their subjects Shia Muslims. Years of economic and political sectarianism – buttressed by a brutal security regime – eventually forced together a coalition of Shia groups, leftists and Islamists who rose up in the 1990s. They very nearly swept the Khalifas from power. But the crisis was averted when Hamad took the throne, promising political reform and an end to the treatment of Bahrain’s Shia as second-class citizens. That pact held until the Arab Spring arrived in Bahrain in February 2011 and another uprising had to be brutally suppressed. In early 2019 Bahrain is on a knife edge; a police state in which activists and protestors disappear into Bahrain’s many torture chambers and where acts of violence against the country’s security forces are taking place every night in towns and villages around the country.
But the Muharraq Stadium is calm. The game is unremarkable in almost every way. A goalless first half is followed by Busaiteen Club scoring three goals without reply in the second. It is a surprise result for Al Shabab who had spent years in Bahrain’s top division and boasted a fleet of talented youngsters who had represented the country’s various national youth teams. For a country of just 1.5 million people, Bahrain had long punched well above its weight when it came to international competition. One player in particular stood out: Hakeem al Araibi, a 20-year-old defender who had already played for Bahrain’s Olympic team.
But the game would soon mean much more than a simple defeat. 20km south-west of the stadium, on the other side of Manama, a riot had broken out outside the Al Khamees police station. According to the official police report, a mob of 150 people attacked the building, throwing Molotov cocktails and smashing windows. Among the crowd, according to eyewitnesses and, later, a confession extracted by the police, was a young man by the name of Hakeem al Araibi.
As the players walked off the pitch at the Muharraq Stadium, Hakeem al Araibi looked dejected as he shook hands with his opponents and the referees. It had been a heavy defeat.
The time was 19.20.
8 October 2009
Milan Máčala was a man with a very obvious dislike of the press. The 66-year-old coach of the Bahrain national team had – like any coach who had weighed the cash benefit of working in the region against the insane pressure that followed – good reason to be suspicious of the circus that had just enveloped him and his team. The Czech coach had spent the previous 15 years hopping from one managerial job to the next in the Gulf, hounded by the Middle East’s sclerotic, demanding football scribes while both being adored and pilloried by the all-powerful royal families that controlled every aspect of the game in the region. He had largely succeeded wherever he went, winning two Gulf Cups with Kuwait, for example. But sometimes things went wrong, like the time he was brutally fired by Saudi Arabia after his first match, a 4-1 defeat to eventual winners Japan, at the 2000 Asian Cup in Lebanon. Now he was on the verge of arguably one of the greatest achievements in international football. But the veil of secrecy and suspicion remained. “I will speak to you for five minutes, but that’s it,” he barked down the phone. Máčala was busy preparing for the first leg of an intercontinental play-off against New Zealand in the Bahraini capital of Manama for a place at the 2010 World Cup finals. “The training session will be closed,” he added, “so you won’t be allowed in or to speak to the players, OK?” Somewhere in Bahrain he slammed down the phone.
By any reasonable measurement, Bahrain shouldn’t have been anywhere near the World Cup finals. The Gulf kingdom is one of the smallest countries on earth, a tiny island next to Qatar, connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. Nonetheless, Bahrain had geopolitical significance. The US military had stationed its Fifth Fleet there. At the time Bahrain had a population of just over a million people and the local league was semi-professional. Compared to its rich, autocratic Gulf neighbours, Bahrain was poorer but more democratic. The kingdom was still ruled by King Hamad, who was a decade into the job. He picked the prime minister, but there was a parliament that gave voice to Bahrain’s unusual sectarian mix and had some real power following the uprisings in the 1990s.
“The uprising began in 1994 when sections of the Shia community in Bahrain and several supporters among the Sunni community issued a petition for political reform,” explained Dr Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert and associate fellow at Chatham House. In 1994 Bahrain was still being ruled by emergency decree as it had been since 1973, two years after independence from the British. But, according to Ulrichsen, there had been almost daily clashes between protesters and security services since then. Bahrain’s internal security was, effectively, run by Ian Henderson, a former British police officer, appointed CBE in 1984, who had brutally suppressed the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the late 1950s. He moved to Bahrain and in 1966 was put in charge of the General Directorate for State Security Investigations. For more than 30 years, until Henderson stepped down in 1998 with the nickname of “the Butcher of Bahrain”, allegations of torture of political opponents were rife. “Henderson was credibly implicated as being present at the torture of several detainees,” said Ulrichsen. Saudi Arabia sent a force over the causeway to help the Khalifa family thwart the uprising, which the Saudis believed was part of an Iranian plot to spread their influence.
When the current king came to the throne it was seen as clear step towards reform and reconciliation between the two communities. By 2009, Bahrain appeared more peaceful and the deep sectarian divisions had not affected the national team, which had become one of the strongest in the region. In 2004 Bahrain reached only their second Asian Cup finals and shocked the continent when they reached the last four. Two brothers in that team accounted for more than half of Bahrain’s goals: Mohamed and A’ala Hubail. A’ala had finished joint top-scorer in the tournament. He scored twice in Bahrain’s 2-2 draw in the quarter-final against Uzbekistan, as well as converting the winning kick in the penalty shootout.
That was just the start. Both the Hubail brothers starred as Bahrain tried to reach the 2006 World Cup finals. A’ala scored six times, the second most in Asian qualification, setting up a play-off match, again against Uzbekistan. After a bizarre scandal the first match between the two in September 2005, which the Uzbeks won 1-0, was annulled after Fifa judged that the Japanese referee had made a technical error: he had awarded Uzbekistan a penalty but, after spotting an Uzbek player encroaching in the box, blew for an indirect free-kick to Bahrain when he should have ordered the penalty be retaken. The Uzbeks were incensed, especially as they won the game anyway.
Bahrain went on to draw the replay 1-1 in Tashkent before holding the Uzbeks 0-0 in Manama, going through to the final intercontinental play-off against Trinidad and Tobago on away goals. If Bahrain had won that tie, they would have been the smallest country ever to qualify for the finals. They almost made it too. After grabbing an away goal in a 1-1 draw during the first leg in Port of Spain, Bahrain were the favourites for the return leg in Manama. Both the Hubail brothers started that match and they held out until the 49th minute when Dennis Lawrence scored for Trinidad and Tobago. The away side won 1-0 and as a result it was they, and not Bahrain, who became the smallest nation ever to play in the finals, a record they held until Iceland qualified for Russia 2018.
Bahrain’s journey towards the 2010 World Cup finals was equally dramatic. A’ala was again the Bahrainis' joint top scorer in qualification but over those ga,es a new star emerged. Sayed Mohamed Adnan was a tall, cultured central midfielder who could also play at centre-back. His performances had caught the eye of European clubs as well as the Asian Football Confederation, who nominated him for their 2009 Player of the Year award. Hubail and Adnan, along with the evergreen winger Salman Isa, helped set up a play-off against their much-disliked neighbours Saudi Arabia. A historic enmity existed between the two, partly to do with centuries of political wrangling and partly due to Saudi forces invading a few years previously and partly due to the number of young Saudi men driving over the King Fahd causeway every Thursday night to get drunk and start fights.
The first leg in September 2009 ended 0-0. As the second leg, played just four days later, entered the 90th minute, the score was 1-1 and Bahrain were going through to the final round on away goals. The board went up showing three minutes of injury time as the 50,000 crowd started to get restless. The Saudis pumped the ball forward. Yasser al Qahtani volleyed a cross over from the right. The Asian Player of the Year, Hamad al Montashari, rose to clatter the ball into the top left-hand corner. The game was over. The crowd exhaled into a state of what turned out to be premature ecstasy. With 10 seconds left of injury time Salman Isa burst forward and won a corner. Isa swung the ball in, a last, desperate, futile attempt. Time seemed to stop as Sayed Mohamed Adnan and Ismail Abdullatif both rose for the ball. It glanced off Abdullatif ’s head. The ball looped towards the goal as if in slow motion and nestled into the bottom right-hand corner. 2-2. It was one of the most incredible four minutes of international football you could ever hope to see. The whistle blew a few seconds later.
Máčala, his white hair and rotund frame giving him the air of a young Boris Yeltsin, seemed shocked, conflicted even, hugging his players before they collapsed in tears around him. “At 1-1, 90 minutes, the game was over,” Máčala said as we met after nightfall outside the offices of the Bahraini Football Association. It was October but a late summer heat wave made the air feel like warm soup. Nearby his team was warming up for training as a dozen frenzied local journalists buzzed around, taking their chance to speak to the players as Máčala looked the other way. “I nearly had a heart attack!” he said. “It was 30 seconds into injury time. But then we scored again. What can I say? It was luck!” Luck only gets a team so far. Unlike the UAE and Qatar – two Gulf countries leveraging their wealth to change the shape of global sport – football in Bahrain was a street game. Rusty goalposts jutted out of almost every spare patch of sand in the capital, where young children play until dusk. “I don’t know how to explain it, you compare the leagues of Bahrain to Kuwait and Qatar, they have much more money and better quality pitches,” said Máčala, now much more amenable than he had been on the phone. “But spirit and desire are much more important. We have had many, many positive moments to help us dream the dream. They have talent and they have speed and flexibility. They [Bahrainis] are playing football every day, everywhere. It’s a small place but they play football, it is in their nature. But now they need organisation to prepare, and to have a strong league.”
Much of the team had moved to the better-paid professional leagues in places like nearby Qatar. There was also Jaycee John, a naturalised Nigerian who played in Belgium. But the key dynamic was one of faith. Máčala believed that a mixed team of Sunni and Shia players sent an important message to the rest of the country that was still coming to terms with life after its uprising. “It [qualification] is very important to them because this is a great moment for the country, because of football,” he said “Everybody on the street is talking about the Bahrain national team. The team is a representative of the country as a whole. This island is small, only 700,000 people [citizens – i.e., not including the thousands of migrant workers who live there], and everybody loves football.”
The match was also viewed by many in Bahrain as a last chance. The heartbreak against Trinidad and Tobago four years previously had left a mark. “After what happened four years ago we are desperate,” said Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa al Khalifa. Sheikh Ali was the excessively genial vice-president of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and a member of the royal family. He incessantly asked whether I’d like a cup of tea as we talked in his office nearby. “Every Bahraini is desperate to go to the World Cup for the first time,” he added. “It’s a dream for every Bahraini… we have been through hell.”
Máčala had seen enough of football in the region to know that chances like these rarely come along once for a country the size of Bahrain, let alone twice. “This is the moment for our players,” he said before heading back to the pitch and throwing the local press out as if swatting away a swarm of flies. “Fifty per cent of this team played in the game with Trinidad and Tobago. Everyone was crying... we need luck.”
By 3pm on the day of the match, the flags that adorned the walls and fences of Bahrain’s National Stadium, in Riffa outside Manama, had already been meticulously hung. Three-and-a-half hours before kick-off, thousands had already arrived in their seats for the first leg of the World Cup play-off against New Zealand, creating an incessant, deafening din that didn’t stop until the final whistle. The red and white of the Bahrain flag didn’t flutter alone. Portraits of King Hamad had been tied to the hoardings. Flags from Sudan, Palestine, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, among others, flew in solidarity. The message of Arab fraternity was clear. If Bahrain were to be the region’s sole representative at the 2010 World Cup finals, then they would rally behind it. By kick-off the stadium had far exceeded its 25,000 capacity as hundreds of fans filled each spare walkway in the main stand. The conditions were so humid you could almost see the air.
A few hours previously the New Zealand team appeared so hot they struggled to get off the team bus and walk the few metres to the stadium. But the All Whites resisted. Sayed Mohammed Adnan controlled the game but Bahrain just couldn’t score. The pivotal moment came when Salman Isa was put through on goal and, after rounding the keeper, contrived to smash the ball against the post with the goal at his mercy. It finished 0-0. At the full-time whistle the Bahraini players left the pitch grim-faced, knowing a wonderful opportunity had been lost. Isa lay shattered and motionless by the bench. Things would get worse. A few days before the team was due to leave for New Zealand, A’ala Hubail, the team’s top scorer for the past six years, snapped a cruciate ligament playing for Al Ahli in the Bahraini league. He would be out for six months.
Bahrain could not score in Wellington in the second leg either. New Zealand took a first-half lead before conceding a second-half penalty. It was Sayed Mohamed Adnan, the beating heart of Bahrain’s qualification campaign, who stepped forward to take it. Score, and Bahrain were virtually secured passage to South Africa. He hit it low to the goalkeeper’s right, but his shot was too weak and too close to Mark Paston, who saved it. Adnan still had his hands on his head in disbelief a few minutes later. New Zealand won 1-0. It would be they, and not Bahrain, who qualified for South Africa 2010.
Back in Manama, A’ala Hubail was bereft. Before the game he had sent a message to his teammates. “We don’t know what will happen in the next four or five years, and it is difficult to know who will still be playing with the national team at that time,” Hubail had said, telling the Gulf Daily News of his fear that, after coming within one match, and one goal, on two occasions, he would never play in a World Cup finals. “I think this will be the last chance for at least four of our national team players, and I hope they can grab this opportunity for all of us... the national team is more than just one player. If I am out, there will be someone there who can play for me.”
His words were both prophetic and cruel.
14 February 2011
The Arab Spring came to Bahrain on Valentine’s Day. The reform process had stalled and with Tunisia and Egypt leading the way with huge street protests, Bahrain followed. Memories were still fresh of the previous uprising. But the discontent had burst forth in a very different world. Technological advances meant that protests could be organised much more easily. And there was also the increasing power of Iran. Bahrain’s largely Sunni elite had always believed that Bahrain’s Shia political leadership were mere puppets controlled by Tehran. It was a familiar refrain for the Shia everywhere in the Middle East, be they in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain; that their allegiance was to their spiritual leader in Iran and not the country they called home.
For those on the street at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the issue of Iran was a smoke screen. They wanted greater democracy, not an Iranian-style theocracy. They wanted more accountability, not rule by an ayatollah. They wanted jobs and a future that was based on meritocracy, not patronage based on religion or family. The crowds that gathered were from all areas of Bahrain too, Shia and Sunni. And amongst the crowd were dozens of sporting heroes; wrestlers, handball players, and most significantly of all, several national football players. It had been just over a year since Sayed Mohamed Adnan, A’ala and Mohamed Hubail had seen their World Cup dream die in Wellington. A’ala and Mohamed now played for the same team, Al Ahli Manama, while Adnan had stayed in Qatar playing for Al Khor. But when the protests came, they decided it was their duty to take to the streets too. According to an interview A’ala gave to the Associated Press, he’d only agreed to go on the march after hearing that the royal family had sanctioned, even encouraged, peaceful protest. It was the biggest mistake of his and his teammates’ lives.
The Pearl Roundabout protest was crushed. Activists claim four people were killed when the military rolled their tanks in to clear the makeshift camp that had been erected. Eventually they destroyed the monument at its centre too, in case it became a symbol, a rallying point, for protest. The King Fahd causeway, once the conduit for a thousand young Saudi men to travel to Manama every weekend to take advantage of Bahrain’s liberal alcohol laws, now rumbled with a new convoy: a Gulf Cooperation Council force from Saudi, Kuwait and the UAE to help the Bahrainis mop up whatever opposition was left. At least 30 people were killed.
The players survived. But they were marked men. The three, as well as Bahrain’s goalkeeper, had been spotted at the protests. A video of A’ala surfaced on social media addressing a large crowd and calling for peaceful change. The video was analysed on a popular Bahrain sports show, with the players’ faces ringed in red to highlight their role. A’ala was shamed on national TV, the host of one talk show labelling the protesters “stray hyenas” and subjecting him to a 15-minute grilling about his “treachery” on state TV.
According to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, the son of the King, Prince Nasser bin Hamad (who was also the president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee), went on state TV and threatened the protesting athletes, vowing that “judgement day” had come. The next day the police came and arrested both A’ala and his brother. “We saw some masked men get out of the car. They said: ‘Captain A’ala get your brother’ and we went with them,” A’ala later explained in an ESPN documentary, E60: The Persecuted Athletes of Bahrain. “They put me in the room for the beatings. One of the people who hit me said, ‘I’m going to break your legs.’ They knew who we were... We were forced to endure it. I had to endure it. If I didn’t something worse would have happened to me.” Eight days after the brothers were arrested, the country’s state news agency – the Bahrain News Agency – announced that a committee would be set up to identify and punish sportsmen and women who had been involved in the protests. It would be chaired, they announced, by the president of the BFA, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa. Its first meeting, it claimed, had already taken place.
Those who played in Bahrain – like the Hubail brothers – were later fired from their clubs and effectively banned from the national team. Two clubs, including Al Shabab, were dissolved for being an alleged hotbed of Shia agitation. They would later be reinstated but demoted to Bahrain’s second tier. Yet no one spoke up for the footballers initially; not Fifa, not the AFC and not the US or British government that had supported similar uprisings in Libya or Syria but who considered the Bahrain royal family a vital ally against the rise of Iran. It was British- and US-made tear gas and rubber bullets that silenced the uprising.
“The violence and abuse is so huge,” explained Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights. “We have too much work. We can’t cope here. A lot of doctors, a lot of people have been targeted, soccer players, basketball players, teachers, unionists.”. Rajab was the most prominent human rights activist in Bahrain and had spoken out against the targeting of high-profile sportsmen and women as well as criticising the continued hosting of the F1 grand prix in Bahrain. He had agreed to speak to me a few months after the Pearl Roundabout uprising, over Skype. He wouldn’t speak on mobile phone or write by email. He was worried that, as the most visible opponent in the foreign media, his communications were being monitored. Rajab was himself arrested in the middle of the night on charges that he had fabricated a picture showing a dead protester, allegedly killed by the army. He claimed he was tortured, threatened with rape and then released. “The people who are in charge, they don’t care about international image,” he said. “They are military people. All of the sport associations are headed by the royal family. We have 100 associations headed by the royal family.” But Rajab reserved his harshest criticism for Fifa. “Footballers have rights like any other human to be a citizen. It’s time for Fifa to raise its voice. The people of Bahrain are looking at them and asking, ‘Where are you?’”
The three players – the Hubail brothers and Sayed Mohamed Adnan – were imprisoned for up to three months. After media pressure made ignorance impossible, Fifa belatedly enquired whether their detention broke their own rules on political involvement in the game. I contacted Sheikh Ali, the genial vice-president of the BFA who had been so kind when I had met him in Manama in 18 months before. He wrote a terse statement in reply. “The players have obviously been in custody after their involvement in the demonstrations and acts of violence against governmental officials was proven,” it read. “The players have been arrested, investigated and detained for having opposed the general laws and by-laws of the country. The fact that they happen to be footballers and national team players is highly irrelevant… If tolerance was shown to those who happen to be athletes, it will result in the disintegrating of the equality under the law spirit, a matter that goes beyond everything our revered government stands for.”
When the players were released their national careers appeared to be over. Mohamed Hubail was sentenced to two years in jail (although that was later overturned on appeal). A’ala fled to Oman where he played in the local league, his family still in Bahrain. Sayed Mohamed Adnan left for Australia and starred for the Brisbane Roar as he powered them on to win the A-League title. But what had once united a nation had been broken for a generation at least. The national team had been shorn of its best players, its legends tainted and abused. The former Leicester City coach Peter Taylor took charge of Bahrain’s attempts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals. When asked about A’ala Hubail during an interview for the ESPN E60 documentary he said he had never even heard of A’ala Hubail. Nor was he on a list of players handed to him for selection. Instead, the national team, and its Under-23 team that had attempted to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, was more interested in showing support for the royal family. I had watched Bahrain parade and kiss a portrait of King Hamad after they beat Palestine 2-1 in an Olympic qualifier at the Faisal al Husseini Stadium near Ramallah.
Taylor’s 2014 World Cup campaign was not a success. Bahrain were eliminated in the first group stage. “I knew nothing of the politics of the situation,” a contrite Taylor told me when I spoke to him on the phone a few months later. “I was just a coach, in charge of a team. That was it.” The golden era of Bahraini football, an era that saw one of the smallest nations on the planet humble Asia’s giants, an era that saw a team which, in Milan Máčala’s words “represented the whole country”, an era that produced two of the finest Asian players of the last 10 years, was over. As A’ala Hubail told ESPN while living in exile in Oman: “I didn’t do anything wrong to deserve this humiliation.”
Yet A’ala and his brother’s experience had at least become public knowledge. Their stories had been told. But as well as them, dozens if not hundreds of other players and athletes had been arrested, persecuted and allegedly tortured in secret. As 14 February 2011 approached, at least Bahrain’s top players had a choice about whether they wanted to attend the protests or not. One Bahrain youth player didn’t have the choice. Hakeem al Araibi was already in jail.
24 February 2016
Hakeem al Araibi can still remember the excitement of getting up at dawn in the hope of watching Bahrain qualify for the World Cup. It was 14 November 2009 and Hakeem was 15 years old, a promising youth player for his local club, Al Shabab. The whole family had gathered around the television to watch the game at his home in Jidhafs, a few kilometres west of Manama. “We were screaming at the television, me and my family, at the house,” he recalled of the second game against New Zealand. “We were wishing we could win and then go outside of the house in the village to celebrate and go to see my mates and celebrate with them.” He remembers praying seconds before Sayed Mohamed Adnan took the penalty. Adnan, and A’ala Hubail, were Hakeem’s heroes. He hoped to emulate them by playing for the national team too. “Mohamed Adnan missed that penalty,” he said, sounding as if he was still disappointed five years later. “We couldn’t do it. It happens in football. We were unlucky.”
It was the start of an emotional year for Hakeem. He was thriving at Al Shabab. A schoolteacher had seen him play and suggested to a local scout that he come and see him. Soon enough he had also come on the radar of the BFA. The national team’s exploits over the previous 10 years had inspired Hakeem. After all, if a country as small as Bahrain can almost reach two World Cup finals, what did it matter if he was from a small town outside the capital? So, in 2010 he was called up to the Under-17 squad. “I was 16 years old when the national team called me up and I was so happy,” he said. “I put so much effort into being a good representative of the national team.” Like the former national team coach Milan Máčala, Hakeem saw the national teams as symbols of unity. “It didn’t matter whether we were Sunni or Shia,” he said of that time. “They [Sunni players] were attending the same prayers as us, religious rites with us. I remember they would sing our religious songs, no problems at all.”
But by the end of 2010 that had changed. Tensions between Shia political groups and the government had begun to boil over. Hakeem’s brother, Emad, was a well-known activist who had become a person of interest to the police. When Hakeem returned to Bahrain after playing an Under-17 national team match in Kuwait, the police raided his home. “I arrived in Bahrain at midnight and then the police attacked my house at 3am,” he recalled. The police, he said, were looking for his brother. Hakeem was the only male in the house. “They took me instead,” he said. He was accused of burning tyres, something he denied, and was held for three months, until February 2011, when the Pearl Roundabout revolution was in full swing. “I was so proud when I came out,” he said of his release. “I couldn’t imagine that so many people would be out on the street and asking for their rights and participating in parliament and other powerful positions in Bahrain. I wasn’t involved in politics but I thought it was something really strange to see.”
He remembers the aftermath and watching the now infamous programme on Bahraini national television where prominent footballers and other athletes were highlighted in the crowd and then denounced. “I’m an athlete and I was afraid I would be in jail again and they would target me again.
Usually, when you have a history, they will target you again,” he said. “I was really surprised when I saw two of my heroes [A’ala Hubail and Sayed Adnan], the most famous players in Bahrain, being mistreated and tortured and thrown in jail. I was really afraid the same would happen to me as in my village there was a big uprising and it played a big part in the Bahraini revolution. I was really afraid to go out of my house. I couldn’t imagine that they would be mistreated. Everyone loved them in Bahrain.”
Hakeem kept his head down, although it was tough to play football. His club, Al Shabab, had been targeted by the BFA. For almost a year after the revolution there was no football at Al Shabab. Eventually, the BFA decided to demote the club to the second division, punishment – Hakeem says – for it being a club from a Shia area heavily involved in the protests. “They stopped the activities in the club because most of the players were Shia,” believed Hakeem. “I couldn’t do anything. No one was playing in my club. I was going to train at the club by myself to keep fit.” He was still being picked for the Under-17 team but he didn’t play any club football until the spring of 2012 when he established himself as first choice. It was on November 3 that year that Hakeem’s life would change forever: Al Shabab versus Busaiteen Club, at the Al Muharraq Stadium. “I remember everything about that game I played against Busaiteen Club,” he said. “I remember seeing the doctor from the club. I remember we were all together in the bus. I remember we were defeated 3-0. We took a shower and went back to the bus and after that we went back to the club. We were talking to a player from Morocco about his career and what he had done.”
The game finished at 19.20. But, according to a Bahrain police report, Hakeem left the stadium, got dressed, raced through the rush hour to the other side of the city so that he could attack the Al Khamees police station 40 minutes later. Such a journey would be virtually impossible without a helicopter. There was also another problem with the police report. The match was shown live on Bahraini television. Regardless, Hakeem and his brother were arrested a few days later. “In the investigation room they were telling me that I had attacked a police station in Al Khamees on the night of November 3. I told them: ‘I was playing live on TV! I have evidence!’” he said. “The stadium I played in was not close to that police station. But they kept saying: ‘Don’t say that because you are a liar. You shut up. You lie.’”
It was at this point that Hakeem alleges that he was tortured by four men, three to hold him, one to beat him, whilst he was blindfolded. “In the interrogation room they asked me all the questions and said: ‘Do you need an introduction or shall we start?’ I didn’t know what they meant. They started beating me. They cared about putting no marks on me. But they were focused on my legs. They would say: ‘You are a football player and we will destroy your future.’ They were beating me on my legs every 10 minutes. When it was red they would stop and let me shake the blood back into them and then I felt them beat again and again without leaving a mark.”
He was released three months later but the trial continued. Meanwhile, Hakeem had returned to play for Al Shabab and was eventually called up for the senior national team by another English coach who had just taken over, Anthony Hudson. “I had no problem with the coach [Hudson] because he had no problem with Shia or Sunni, only how you played football and whether you were good enough,” he said “I felt really weird towards the administration of the Bahrain national football team though because most of them were Sunni and I was a little afraid. But it went OK, away from politics. I was playing regularly, not saying anything about the uprising...”
This, it turns out, wasn’t enough. Hakeem travelled with the national team to Qatar at the end of 2013 for the West Asian Football Federation Championship. Shortly after Bahrain’s 0-0 draw with Iraq, as they trained for the next game against Jordan on 4 January 2014, al Araibi was informed that he had been convicted of attacking the police station and had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Despite the evidence that he was playing football at the time live on television, the court upheld a confession extracted from his brother Emad that also placed Hakeem at the scene of the crime. Emad claimed he had been tortured into giving the confession. But the judge, who was also a member of the Khalifa royal family, dismissed the allegation, as well as testimonies from Hakeem’s teammates that he was still with the team well past 8pm when the attack on Al Khamees police station took place. He told Hudson of the news before federation officials, he said, frogmarched him to the airport and put him on a flight back to Bahrain. Hudson didn’t respond to messages with questions about Hakeem.
“No way, I am not going back. I’ve experienced really horrible days before, being tortured, mistreated. How can I be assured I won’t be killed back in Bahrain?” Hakeem recalled thinking at that moment. “When I got inside the gate I waited until the guys from Bahrain’s football administration went outside the airport. And then I left the airport. I went to one of my friends in Qatar and asked them to help me and book me a ticket to anywhere else in the world so I could survive.” What followed was a nomadic four-month escape. He left for Iran, then Iraq, then Iran again, Malaysia, Thailand and, finally, Australia. “I was just thinking of playing football and living a peaceful life.”
Hakeem and I spoke for over an hour as he told me his story over the phone. He was in Melbourne and was happy, playing state football, preparing to get married and waiting for his permanent refugee status to come through from the Australian authorities. But he was also angry. It was a few days before Fifa’s 2016 presidential election was about to take place. Gianni Infantino was the slight favourite to win the vote but his main challenger was Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa, the former president of the BFA and member of Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa royal family, the same Sheikh Salman who allegedly chaired a committee to identify protesting athletes. Two years later he had been elected president of the Asian Football Confederation and now he was up for football’s top job.
A spokesperson for Sheikh Salman told the Guardian in 2016 that “the allegations are entirely false and categorically denied by Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa. While it was proposed that Sheikh Salman lead a fact-finding committee in relation to the events of 2011, that committee was never formally established and never conducted any business whatsoever.” But for Hakeem those denials were not plausible. “I can guarantee he [Sheikh Salman] knows what happened in Bahrain,” he said. “He was the BFA president so there is no way he doesn’t know what happens regardless of the committee. Players have been mistreated in a violent way. If you deny that things happened to other players, what about me? I am one of the big examples in your history. I have been tortured. I have evidence I was playing live on TV. And you haven’t defended me. At least say a word about me. He didn’t say anything about me. Which means you have wronged me.”
The run up to the Fifa vote took a surprising turn. Back in Bahrain, three months before the vote, Sheikh Salman gave an interview to AP in which he called the accusations “dirty tricks and dirty lies” before wheeling out a secret weapon to pledge support for his candidacy: A’ala Hubail, Bahrain’s all-time top scorer who had been humiliated on national television, jailed and later claimed to have been tortured after being involved in the protest. Now he was in favour of Sheikh Salman’s candidacy, claiming that his protest was not political, but rather aimed at improving sports facilities. “I have known Sheikh Salman for a while. I don’t think that he was involved in this... I would never lie. I don’t think he did this and I am sure of it,” A’ala Hubail told AP. “We didn’t want to harm anyone or offend anybody… On Bahrain television, some people wanted to take advantage of the situation and use the players for their own good... so I was arrested for about three months and then I was released.”
Regardless, Sheikh Salman’s candidacy continued to be dogged by accusations of complicity in torture and mistreatment. “If I was in Bahrain, you would not hear something bad from me about Sheikh Salman,” Hakeem told me when I asked about Hubail’s recent comments. Sayed Mohamed Adnan had also been somewhat rehabilitated by returning to Bahrain and playing again briefly for the national team. “If I said anything opposite I would be mistreated and in jail,” added Hakeem. “They changed their words because they are in fear.”
Sheikh Salman narrowly lost the Fifa presidential election. He won 85 votes in the first round of voting, just behind Infantino who lead with 88. But, during the second round, Infantino ran away with it. Of the 34 voters who had backed other candidates in the first round, only three switched to Sheikh Salman. He returned to his presidency of the AFC. Meanwhile, at the end of November 2017, Hakeem al Araibi was finally granted permanent leave to remain in Australia as a refugee. He moved to Pascoe Vale FC, a semi-pro club in Australia’s National Premier Leagues Victoria, and got married last year.
In November 2018 he decided to go on honeymoon in Thailand. But when the couple arrived in Bangkok, Hakeem was arrested. Bahrain had issued a “red notice” through Interpol, in effect an international arrest warrant, even though Interpol’s own rules prevent refugees from being issued red notices by the countries they have fled from. He is currently in jail in Thailand and could be sent back to Bahrain at any moment. “This is nothing to do with my conviction, Bahrain wants me back to punish me, because I talked to the media in 2016 about the terrible human rights and about how Sheikh Salman is a very bad man who discriminates against Shia Muslims,” Hakeem told the Guardian in January. “I am so scared of being sent back to Bahrain, so scared because 100 per cent they will arrest me, they will torture me again, possibly they will kill me.”
Others who spoke out are also in jail. Nabeel Rajab, the human rights activist whom I had spoken to in 2011, has been in jail since 2017. In 2018 he was sentenced to five years in prison for tweeting criticism of the Bahraini government, in particular allegations of torture at Jaw prison.
After intense pressure Fifa eventually wrote to the Thai government two months after Hakeem’s arrest asking for him to be released. Australia has refused to expedite Hakeem’s Australian citizenship, which would have brought him home. There were also questions about when the red notice was issued. Bahrain raised the red notice 19 days before Hakeem travelled, and after he had bought his ticket. Several of his supporters have suggested that he may have been watched. The Bahrain government insists he will get a fair trial. “Had Al Araibi remained in Bahrain, he would also have had the chance to appeal alongside his co-accused,” a spokesperson told the Guardian. “Instead he fled Bahrain after being released on bail to play professional football.”
A fair trial would appear to be highly unlikely. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2019 global report, the situation has deteriorated even further in Bahrain. The last opposition newspaper and last credible opposition coalition has been dissolved. HRW also said that the Bahraini “authorities have failed to credibly investigate and prosecute officials and police officers who allegedly committed violations, including torture.” In 2017 Amnesty International was highly critical of a constitutional amendment that allowed Bahraini civilians to be tried in front of a military court. “It is part of a broader pattern where the government uses the courts to crack down on all forms of opposition,” said Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf. “Instead of moving to correct its shameful history of unfair trials and impunity for violations, authorities in Bahrain have decided to further undermine faith in the independence and fairness of the courts and of the justice system as a whole.”
Sheikh Salman, who is also a Fifa vice-president, has made no public comment. When asked about the case, the AFC said that it was “working with many stakeholders, including Fifa and the FA of Thailand, on this matter. While this work is ongoing we will make no further comment.” The AFC later admitted that Sheikh Salman had been recused from all matters “involving the AFC’s West Zone to ensure there were no accusations of a conflict of interest.” He will stand for re-election as AFC president in April 2019.
At the beginning of February, Al Araibi appeared in court in Bangkok,
barefoot, ankles chained together. He was remanded for a further 60
days. Diplomatic moves continued, and a couple of days later proof
emerged that the red notice had been issued not by Australia, as the
Thai authorities had initially claimed but from Bahrain, in breach of
the Interpol protocol by which a red notice cannot be issued against a
refugee by the country from which he has fled.
It is not clear whether that was the cause, but within 24 hours, Al
Araibi was released, and at midnight on 11 February, he boarded a
flight back to Melbourne. The head of Thailand’s immigration police,
Surachate Hakparn, referred vaguely to “new information” leading it to
petition the court to drop the case, although Chatchom Akapin, the
director general of the international affairs departments of the
attorney general’s office said the case had been dropped because
Bahrain had decided not to pursue the extradition.
Either way, Hakeem al Araibi is unlikely ever to play for the Bahrain national team again. I thought of Milan Máčala back in 2009, sweating in Manama’s humidity, telling me how the team was a symbol of unity that successfully harnessed a preposterous amount of talent for the tiny population. I thought of how I had turned up to a Brisbane Roar game in Sydney not long after Sayed Mohamed Adnan had arrived, and how his club spokesperson told me he feared retribution and was too scared to talk about what had happened to him. And I thought of Hakeem, alone in his cell, a player who was once proud to wear the Bahrain shirt in spite of what had happened to him and his family. A generation of players departed and a kingdom lost forever.
You can sign the #SaveHakeem petition here.