There are many reasons why the FEI shouldn’t have so promptly lifted its first suspension of the UAE national federation (NF) in 2015. Since then, the discipline’s dominant player has had more “second chances” than it deserved. But unlike 2015, last week’s FEI decision to suspend it again has massive impacts, wiping out the winter endurance season and grinding the global horse trade to a halt.
The FEI produced this concise Q&A for riders of limited attention span. Here is my unofficial – and rather longer – Q&A:
Isn’t a six-month suspension rather short, bearing in mind the UAE’s history of doping, cheating and horse fatalities?
The UAE hasn’t been suspended for historic scandals. Its been suspended for two specific offences – the incorrect classification of two 3* 160km rides as CEN (national rides under less rigorous rules) despite the numerous countries represented. The FEI board was satisfied that the UAE deliberately demoted the two races to avoid applying the FEI’s new welfare-orientated rules. UAE is the first NF to be suspended this way. Even at the height of the FEI’s dispute with jumping’s Global Champions League, the Global faithfully followed the FEI jumping rules.
The UAE has run other headlining races as CEN for years. Why has the FEI only acted now?
A FEI loophole classifies 2* categories as CIMs (Minor international events.) CIMs can be run as CEN, so the UAE could invite many countries to 120km CEN that were formerly 2* CEIs. In endurance, 120km is a serious distance – even the ill-fated 2018 world championship would have been decided over 120km, had it completed.
Labelling 2* as CIMs in other disciplines makes sense. FEI jumping and eventing each have five star levels, so their 2* contests are relatively lowly. But endurance comprises just three levels of international competition – hence endurance 2* is much more demanding than jumping 2*, pro rata. The UAE shrewdly avoided running 160km 3*, non CIM races as CEN till January 2020, when bravado got the better of them and they dove straight into a FEI legal trap.
I discussed this loophole here in January, and don’t know why the FEI did not close it long ago. The FEI told me it would review CIM categorisations across the board. This has been shelved temporarily, because the 2020 FEI General Assembly has moved online, and will focus on the obligatory review of anti-doping rules this time. Also, while the FEI hasn’t said this, CIM categorisation is hardly urgent now that the main loophole exploiter is grounded.
Are overseas riders in trouble if they go rogue and compete in the UAE?
Yes. You become ineligible to enter (or officiate) in FEI competitions for six months after your participation in any unsanctioned event.
What protection is there for horses at unsanctioned events?
None. We already know that many FEI accredited officials turn a blind eye at desert rides. It seems unlikely they will undergo an epiphany.
Isn’t the suspension unfair on UAE jumping riders?
The UAE’s top jumping riders are blameless so yes, the suspension is tough on them. During the 2015 UAE suspension, its jumpers were allowed to compete under the neutral FEI flag. This time they too are grounded, though for a shorter period than the endurance riders. It will affect jumpers across the Middle East. In a normal year the UAE would host many CSIs including a 5* Nations Cup and a 5* World Cup qualifier.
Last year the UAE NF lobbied all other national federations to vote against the FEI’s new endurance rules only to see them approved by a landslide vote at the 2019 General Assembly. I guess the UAE doesn’t have nearly as much clout around the wider horse world as it thought. The UAE knew the potential consequences when disaffiliating the two 160km races. Jumpers, please know that it is the UAE NF and its endurance organisers that have let you down.
Could a petition quash the suspension?
All the petition currently in circulation does is highlight how many people haven’t understood why the suspension was imposed. Only the FEI Tribunal or Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) can quash or reduce it. A Dutch law firm is encouraging riders to appeal. There is no precedent for Rider A to demand the reinstatement of suspended Organization B because Person A has lost opportunities to pursue their hobby, so that will be interesting.
Will the UAE suspension affect the world endurance championship?
The 2020 world championship was postponed to May 2021, at Pisa in Italy. Those not already qualified because of the pandemic and/or stricter new FEI rules now have no chance of counting any result from upcoming UAE rides. Moreover, if you ride in the UAE in January and February 2021 you can’t enter for FEI-anything for six months thereafter. That will exclude you from Pisa and possibly the European championships in September too.
There’s a chance, of course, that Sheikh Mohammed will now withdraw his Pisa sponsorship. Pisa already looks like being unrepresentative of the world’s best if the pandemic means border controls are still in place next spring. I wonder if it will happen at all?
The UAE was bidding to host the 2022 world championship in Dubai. The FEI has confirmed it can’t be allocated to a suspended NF.
Can someone set up a new body outside the FEI to run desert races?
Yes – this has long been rumoured. The Middle East certainly has enough money to provide a livelihood for the officials obliged to sever all FEI ties if they throw in their lot with “Desert Racing Inc.”
There could be problems in the horse supply chain after a couple of years, though. In a normal season the UAE imports at least 1,500 already qualified horses. If overseas producers get trapped in a cycle of six-monthly exile from FEI and national rides, where else will they prove speed and durability to UAE buyers? On the other hand, go-faster juice and heavy duty painkillers probably won’t matter to a breakaway organization – it will hardly be in a rush to sign up to WADA!
Is the FEI to blame for letting desert endurance run amok?
It’s the FEI’s fault that Middle Eastern endurance ran out of control in the ‘noughties, but past oversight and FEI weakness cannot be blamed ad infinitum. Hundreds of stakeholders – riders, trainers, producers, officials – of questionable moral compass continue to support desert racing, despite all the atrocities exposed over the past 10 years.
Please don’t tell me that visiting riders haven’t witnessed serious rule breaches on the field of play, but kept schtum. Please don’t tell me visitors didn’t suspect their borrowed horses were doped, but reckoned the chance of being sampled was remote. Please don’t tell me that “participants” in the bogus rides failed to notice their scores were faked. The inertia of everyone who knew what was going on but did nothing caused this crisis.
Has the FEI finally wiped its hands of endurance, then?
It does rather look like it. The UAE – major sponsor, and owner of half the world population of FEI-registered endurance horses – was progressively dis-affiliating most of its rides and paving the way for a breakaway movement long before the 2019 General Assembly vote.
My interest in reporting the scandals in desert endurance began in 2012, after I was asked to attend a major debate at the first FEI sport forum in Lausanne. Delegates wondered if desert racing should break away, leaving the FEI to administer the less well funded “classic” sport. Overwhelmingly, vets felt that desert racing must remain in the FEI fold to give a modicum of protection to the horses. The FEI cannot, though, protect horses from onerous desert training regimes on the 360 days they are not doing a FEI ride, or from corrupt and myopic officials.
A breakaway movement is not the outcome the welfare lobby wanted. But we’ve seen again and again that major players would rather throw money at rubbishing the reformers rather than on encouraging riders and trainers to read the rulebook or learn a bit of horsemanship. (I’ve been harassed by UAE-related lawyers myself.)
The desert sport really is beyond redemption, despite all efforts. The pandemic could well accelerate what is already an inevitable break-away. If the FEI emerges from the pandemic slimmer and poorer, that might well make its non-Olympic involvements unviable anyway.
I am sure the FEI feels very deeply that if it gives up on endurance in general, it will fail decent riders, decent organisers and thousands of horses. I know I would. But six years ago, chair of the endurance strategic planning group Andrew Finding stressed that endurance was, by association, jeopardising the place of jumping, eventing and dressage within the Olympic movement. We have reached the stage of any break-away group pushing against an open door. The wider FEI family can’t see the back of endurance soon enough.