By STEVE MASCORD
BEING jailed in Dubai is Hell. “I couldn’t dp my NRL fantasy comp for two weeks,” says Sol Mokdad, weaving through the ancient narrow lanes of Exeter in south-west England.
“Lost both weeks. Shocking.”
The smiley 30-year-old beside me bears little resemblance to the dissident, refusenik, suffragette, martyr (“the word ‘martyr is too huge because I am still alive,” he insists) that you may have envisaged when you first learned that a rugby league official had been jailed in the United Arab Emirates at the behest of the local rugby union.
Mokdad, raised in Saudi Arabia by Lebanese parents and a former resident of both New Zealand and Australia, was involved in rugby league administration before he was out of his teens. He seems to know more about governance, corporate structure and commercial law than most men twice his age and he’s “exiled in Exeter’ following his headline-grabbing incarceration, living with some old flatmates and looking for a new start.
Following his departure, the once-promising rugby league movement in the UAE is at death’s door. UAE Rugby are trying to take it over, and the Rugby League International Federation seems willing to work with them.
Rugby union have done some dastardly things to rugby league over the past 120 years – the French injustice of the Second World War will hopefully never be outdone – but having a league official thrown in jail holds a unique place in the troubled history of the two codes.
As we sit in grounds of the 600-year-old Exeter Cathedral, among picnickers on a sunny day which locals insist are relatively rare even in summer, I ask Sol to recall the afternoon he was arrested.
“I was invited to go to the Sports Industry Forum at the Sofitel hotel in Dubai – by the organiser,” he replies. “Then a friend of mine texted me saying ‘get out of there, they’re coming to arrest you.’
“As soon as I got outside, there were two guys who took my phone, put me in a van and took me to the general headquarters of the police station.
“When I got there, I waited for an hour. But what I got from it – they (had arrested) me for fraud and embezzlement. They claimed that I said I was president of the rugby union and they said that I took a lot of money, a substantial amount of money from the sponsors.
“One of the questions was ‘what did you do with the 800,000 dirhams from Nissan?’ and that’s ridiculous.
“We didn’t even take any money off them. Before they paid, this whole thing went down.”
At this point it’s probably a good idea to provide some background. Rugby league has been going well in Dubai over the past five years, with plenty of sympathetic press and some high profile sponsors, such as Nissan and Fitness First, coming on board.
Two things happened to rile the already annoyed rugby union. One, Mokdad told the local English-language press the UAE could host the the 2021 World Cup. Two, when the article was translated back into Arabic, Mokdad was wrongly described as the union president.
During our talk, Mokdad raises the prospect of rugby league changing its name to avoid confusion with union. He says they should be described as different sports, not “codes” – and is adamant the World Cup qualifier between Lebanon and South Africa set down for Dubai on October 30 should not go ahead.
But the key issue here is rugby union’s response to rugby league’s belated expansion. In places like the UAE, Italy, Morocco and South Africa, local leaguies are getting a bitter taste of how things were in France under the Vichy government – and the RLIF seems woefully under resourced to protect them.
No doubt, Mokdad’s human rights were violated. “UAE Rugby League was formed in 2007, even though we weren’t registered with the government,” said Mokdad.
“UAE Rugby Union was registered in 2009 or 2010 by Emirati people. Rugby union had been there for about 40 years.
“When I approached the General Authority Of Youth And Sports, they said ‘play the game, get EmiratIs involved, grow the game and then we’ll give you recognition’.
“When we started getting big enough, through to the first weekend of our competition in 2015 which was a huge success thanks to everyone involved … there was a press release from UAE Rugby in conjunction to with the GAYS what we weren’t allowed to use the UAE name and if we did use the UAE name, there would be criminal charges against us.
“The first thing we did was we rebranded … we changed all our social media and I sent an email to the rugby union because they said they wanted to meet with me. I said I’d love to meet with them. No reply.
“That’s when I made a statement about hosting the 2021 World Cup and it hit the fan. They translated it and said I was the president of the rugby union.
“I sent an apology to the general secretary of the rugby union … I copied in the European Federation. No reply. I sent another one, just to him. No reply.
“I managed to get a meeting with the general secretary of the rugby union – which was cancelled. Then my arrest.”
Mokdad was humbled by the support from around the rugby league world. He was held even after UAER said the charges had been dropped. Before he could be released, Mokdad was made to make a grovelling apology on social media – a schoolboy-like admission of doing “a mistake” which he would ‘never do again”.
He recalls: “I went to the UAE Rugby office. They basically said to the lieutenant, ‘if he doesn’t sign this document, he goes back to jail’.
“That’s how they wanted to do it, to make me look bad. I just didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to sign the document and get out of there.
“It’s something I had to do to get out. I know I might have let a few people down but it’s good that people see it was a gun to the head.”
Mokdad has told friends he met people in jail who were there for passing wind in a lift, or taking a selfy that accidentally included an Emirati without her permission. Others could get out by paying a $150 fine but couldn’t afford it.
He was stunned that RLIF chief executive David Collier has described the imbroglio as “mainly an immigration issue”. Mokdad had overstayed his visa – extremely common in Dubai, he says – and paid a fine for that.
The fraud and embezzlement charges, while withdrawn, ruined his reputation in the business community. Some people advised him to sue the Arabic media but instead he just left.
“I spent nine years of my life there building, not just rugby league but other things as well. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I love rugby league and I do want to stay in rugby league.
“Rugby league is dead there at the moment and I don’t think it will make a comeback. UAE Rugby is a government institution, pretty much. The International Federation is going to have a hard time getting recognition there because they’ll be saving face.”
“They put me in this cold room, interrogated me, put me back in the room and this went on from 4pm til about … I didn’t make it to the jail until 5am the next morning.
“You’re just thrown in there, don’t know what’s happening. No-one wants to give you answers. I slept on the floor. The foreman came in, got a nice bunk bed, I slept in that for a couple of hours, had to go to public prosecution, then back.
“The last two days, I was in general headquarters. It’s just a cell with nothing. The one I was in first, I watched the Champions League semi-final on TV there.”
Sol Makdad shakes his head when I ask if he ever feared for his safety.
“I was the biggest guy there, mate. I had a big beard and my hair was everywhere. I think THEY were scared of ME.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK