In Iraq, ex-sports stars seek to shake up politics

The National Alliance is led by Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi, above, a secular Shiite, and parliamentary speaker Salim Al-Juburi, a Sunni. (AFP)
Updated 02 May 2018
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In Iraq, ex-sports stars seek to shake up politics

BAGHDAD: In the sweltering heat of Mexico ‘86, Ahmed Radhi and Basil Gorgis pulled on the same jerseys to represent Iraq’s football team in its sole World Cup Finals.
But now, a third of a century later, they’re just two of several former stars taking part in a very different contest — as parliamentary candidates in next month’s election.
While the World Cup adventure ended in dismal failure, with Iraq crashing out after losing all three of its group games, the ex-players’ appeal could be a big draw for some Iraqi voters.
“They already have fans,” says Hussein Hassan, a 45-year-old Baghdad resident. “It’s now the turn of these stars to put themselves at the service of the people.”
Distrust of politicians ahead of the May 12 vote is high, with the 15 years since the US-led toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein marred by repeated periods of chaos and endemic corruption.
“We have more confidence in them than the politicians, who have changed nothing,” Hassan says.
It’s a view that Radhi, scorer of Iraq’s only World Cup Finals goal, takes on board.
“Iraqis need someone who shows that they are focusing on their interests, and who will work to guarantee a decent life,” the National Alliance candidate says.
The 54-year-old says his political group “brings together all communities and confessions.”
The National Alliance is led by Iraq’s Vice President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and parliamentary speaker Salim Al-Juburi, a Sunni.
It’s a union that seeks to move beyond Iraq’s Shiite-Sunni ethnic cleavage — a major pull for the ex-footballer.
The NA’s list of candidates is liberal and “transcends confessionalism,” he says. “This is what the people want now.”
Other candidates, sporting or otherwise, have more narrow motivations.
Radhi’s former teammate Gorgis is among a list of candidates fielded by “Abna Al-Rafideyn,” a group bringing together Chaldean Christians, Assyrians and Syriacs.
Now administrator for the national team, Gorgis is running in the Kurdish city of Irbil and says he seeks to protect the interests of Christians.
Standing up for the rights of his community is also what motivates Chaker Mohammad Sabbar, another former player on Iraq’s national soccer team.
The 50-year-old, who appeared in every position except goalkeeper during his career, is Sunni, a group that’s played second fiddle to the majority Shiites since Saddam’s fall.
Sabbar says loved ones cautioned against involvement in politics, telling him it would “achieve nothing, because no change is possible.”
But their advice hasn’t stopped him running as a candidate in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in central Iraq. Sabbar is number 10 on the list of the “Tamaddun” group, which advocates a secular state.
Sunni dominated Ramadi was seized by the Daesh group in May 2015, before being retaken by government forces less than a year later.
“The people have suffered enormously,” says Sabbar, whose family live in the region.
“Now, it’s time our interests are defended, like those of other Iraqis,” he adds.
Not all the former footballers running in the elections here are political novices.
Radhi stood in the 2014 poll and lost, while another ex-international, Hassan Farhan, is a politics and military science graduate.
“People now have more confidence in sportsmen than politicians, who have weakened the state,” says 65-year-old Farhan, who appears on a list for the secular Civil Party.
Others are determined to ensure new investment in facilities, to help the country compete again internationally in a whole range of disciplines.
“We must think about building a better future for sport,” says ex-international swimmer Sarmad Abdelilah, now a member of the National Olympic Committee and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s “Victory Alliance.”
“There are no athletes in parliament and so there are no laws or institutions to structure Iraqi sport,” he laments.
Other contenders include Taleb Faysal, the president of Iraq’s weightlifting federation, who is on the list for former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s “Rule of Law Alliance.”
But some citizens here don’t buy into the appeal of sporting veterans.
“We have confidence in none of the candidates, because we know they will only think of themselves once in parliament,” says Imane Kazem in the capital.


Dubai starts its Expo countdown

Updated 9 min 18 sec ago
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Dubai starts its Expo countdown

  • Last year, 10.8 billion dirhams ($2.9 billion) of Expo construction contracts and 411 million didrhams of non-construction contracts were awarded
  • Expo 2020 Dubai is committed to recognizing the efforts and achievements of innovators from across Saudi Arabia and the wider region, Al-Gargawi explained

DUBAI: With only two years to go until the opening of Expo 2020 Dubai, preparations are under way to deliver what will be the first Expo in the region.
More than 170 countries have committed to take part in the event, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Italy, the UK, Indonesia and France.
“Everyone at Expo 2020 Dubai is working hard to deliver a World Expo that has real relevance and impact across continents and generations,” said Maha Al-Gargawi, director of international participants for the event. “The UAE is extremely proud to host the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region’s first World Expo, but we also understand that this is a global effort.”
One of the planning team’s main goals is to stage the most international World Expo in history. It expects 70 percent of its visitors to come from outside the UAE — the largest proportion of international visitors in 167 years of World Expos.
“The number of participating countries is significant this far out from the Expo, and we are excited to see how these will bring to life our theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future,’ as well as our three key sub-themes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability,” Al-Gargawi said.
“Some countries have already started to reveal their pavilion designs and themes, providing a flavor of what millions of visitors can expect to see at Expo 2020. Combined with the many unique and exciting visitor experiences our team is creating, these engaging national pavilions will help Expo to attract its expected 25 million visits, leaving a lasting impact on everyone who comes.” Saudi Arabia has not yet revealed the details of its pavilion but is expected to do so soon.
Construction is well advanced on the three theme districts that form the core of the Expo site. The foundations are complete and the buildings are taking shape.
To date, more than 42 million work hours have been completed on the site and there are now around 20,000 workers on site.
“When we open our doors on Oct. 20, 2020, we want to welcome visitors and participants to an awe-inspiring site that is flawlessly presented,” Al-Gargawi said. “We are progressing well with the recruitment of more than 30,000 volunteers who will help to welcome the world to the UAE in 2020. They will introduce millions of people to the immersive experiences, exciting events and engaging discussions that will take place at our site every day.”
Last month, Expo 2020 Dubai launched its House of Volunteers — a creative hub that will host special events and exclusive activities for volunteers on the journey to 2020 and throughout the six months of Expo. “As with any project of this magnitude, we have to overcome new obstacles on a daily basis, and our world-class team works closely with partners, participants and other stakeholders to ensure we are able to turn challenges into opportunities,” she explained. “This is what World Expos are all about. We are constantly working to ensure we tweak elements of the Expo to ensure the best possible visitor experience in 2020.”
The Sustainability Pavilion, designed by Grimshaw Architects, explores the potential for buildings to be self-sustaining in water and energy by using innovative combinations of technologies to harvest solar power and water from the air. It is due to be completed by October 2019. “Expo 2020 Dubai represents a unique opportunity to showcase the MEASA region’s culture and achievements and provide a platform for our young and dynamic population to connect with the world,” she said. “We want to trigger a long-term effect in this region and the wider world, inspiring the next generation of innovators, business executives and thought leaders.”
The team is also focused on ensuring that Expo 2020 provides significant economic benefits and investment to stimulate new job opportunities in the UAE and across the region. “Expo 2020 will also provide the UAE and the wider region with an opportunity to show a different, modern, progressive side of our cultures and people to the many millions of visitors we look forward to welcoming from around the world,” Al-Gargawi said. “From the very beginning, Expo 2020 has been committed to building a legacy that is meaningful and sustainable, extending its impact and benefits beyond the UAE to the wider region and the rest of the world. Expo’s long-term approach is based on four pillars: physical, economic, social and reputational.”
Last year, 10.8 billion dirhams ($2.9 billion) of Expo construction contracts and 411 million didrhams of non-construction contracts were awarded. More than 24,000 businesses from 145 countries are registered to do business with Expo 2020 Dubai, and 3,891 contracts have been awarded, with small and medium enterprises winning 56 percent of these.
Expo 2020 will also spur significant long-term economic growth. By building ties that will remain well beyond 2020, Expo will contribute to new business generation, GDP growth and job creation across the Middle East.
“From a social perspective, Expo 2020 is an opportunity to inspire, empower and collaborate with our youth, enabling young people to expand their horizons,” she added. “It will encourage an understanding of — and an interest in — key drivers of future progress in line with our three key sub-themes of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability. A number of Middle Eastern countries have already announced their participation, and we expect more to follow in the lead-up to the event. Nations from our region that have already confirmed their participation include Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.”
Expo Live, the event’s innovation and partnership program, provides grants of up to $100,000 for projects that have a positive social or environmental impact. Expo Live is also keen to engage Saudi entrepreneurs. “Expo 2020 Dubai is committed to recognizing the efforts and achievements of innovators from across Saudi Arabia and the wider region,” Al-Gargawi explained. “The program offers an amazing opportunity for social entrepreneurs from Saudi Arabia to show the world how the country is working to benefit communities both domestically and internationally.”
Expo 2020 launched Expo Live to fund, and promote creative solutions that improve people’s lives, preserve the planet or both. “It is harnessing the convening power of World Expos to demonstrate how innovations coming from all places and people can advance the pace of progress and inspire a more inclusive and prosperous future,” she added. “Innovation can come from anywhere to everyone, which is why we want to support projects from Saudi Arabia and beyond, helping change-makers to maximize their impact. Successful applicants may also get the chance to showcase their innovative solutions to millions of visitors at the next World Expo.”