Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Photo: Tony Parkes Pictures
by Louise Parkes
So when I decided to attend the voting procedure for the new FEI President before leaving Kuala Lumpur I told myself to stay curious, put opinion on the back-burner and simply watch it unfold. I knew that I knew that there had been considerable tension over the last few months as the three candidates executed their charm campaigns and prepared their presentations. I knew that I didn't know a lot about Princess Benedikte from Denmark, I knew that I knew a little about FEI First Vice-President Mr Freddy Serpieri and I knew that I knew a little more about Her Royal Highness Princess Haya of Jordan.
I first met her when she came to Ireland to train with the late Paul Darragh. Paul asked me to come to his stud-farm to take pictures of "someone important" but I had no idea who it was until I arrived there. I remember how unassuming Princess Haya was that day and how, over the next two years, she blended quietly into the Irish horse scene as she honed her show jumping skills on the Irish circuit. Irish people are not big into standing on ceremony. The more high-profile the personality, the less recognition they are likely to get and when the Princess arrived at horse shows she would mostly be greeted with a cheery "Hiya" - no pun intended - and she would respond accordingly. She didn't expect red-carpet treatment and she didn't get it. I recall how impressive she was when I interviewed her some time later and I remember watching her handle herself really professionally in a TV interview. That was all more than 10 years ago. Now her role is very different, but I think I know that she is not.
I know I know that Princess Haya's candidacy created a great deal of anxiety in certain quarters because her appointment would represent a very definite change and, as we all know, change can be a very difficult thing to deal with. When we don't know things we can sometimes make uninformed decisions, express opinions not based on fact and perceive threats where there are none. Princess Haya's personal charm has long been recognised but the contest seemed to develop into something of a clash of cultures. The wealth and power of the Princess's husband, Dubai's Crown Prince HH General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was an issue for some people. After her election on Monday however, she talked about that. She never flinched when asked about concerns that her husband might attempt to influence her role in the FEI - "the only people who will influence my Presidency will be the National Federations" said the Arab lady with attitude.
The 32 year old Jordanian is the 13th FEI President, and the third woman in a row to hold the post following Spanish royal family member the Donor Pilar de Borbon and England's Princess Anne. Princess Haya, who is also a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Food Programme, said after her election that her priority for the FEI is "to bring the organisation into the 21st century. I will be concentrating on communication, enablement, better financing, governance, development and protecting our position within the International Olympic Committee. Some people have said that I am too young for the job but I've aged about five years in the past five days!" she pointed out with some amusement and she talked about the role of the FEI in addressing doping in the sport "we have to be tough but fair, our sport is mainly a clean sport, 95% of athletes are clean and we have to protect them against those who cheat".
Princess Haya's reign as President of the FEI began on Monday. I know that I don't know if she will achieve everything that she sets out to do, but I know that I do know that she is young, bright, energetic, clear-minded and filled with determination. She may come from a different background to those who went before her, but she is a 21st century woman and, in the end, those voting at the 2006 FEI General Assembly decided she was the right person for the job. Her election marks the dawning of a new era, and I'm filled with curiosity about how it's going to evolve.....this not knowing business can be quite fascinating really.......
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