27 August 2014

The WADA Interview – Dr. Mohammed Saleh Al Konbaz

Dr. Konbaz is President of the Saudi Arabian Anti-Doping Committee and was last year elected Chair of the UNESCO Conference of Parties in Paris. WADA recently sat down with the Foundation Board member to learn more about his views on the state of anti-doping.



Looking at your background in anti-doping – from where did your interest originate?

MK: My responsibilities as—then—deputy minister at the Saudi Arabian Health Ministry involved working in various health departments including rehab centers. I noticed at the time that athletes were among the patients suffering from addiction. Additionally, as a volunteer at the Saudi Sports Medicine Association, I noted the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) increased interest in athletes’ abuse of performance enhancement drugs, and endorsement of programs that protect athletes to achieve true play in sports in the late 1980s. Before long—in 1991 to be exact—I published, through the Saudi Sports Medicine Association, the first introductory book on doping, its history, and regulations in Arabic.

During my work at the medical committee of the Union of Arab National Olympic Committees (UANOC), I proposed sanctioning anti-doping programs in the Arab world in coordination with the IOC. In fact, the incorporation of the program was made through two resolutions:

  1. The Council of Arab Youth and Sports Ministers endorsed the Chart in March 1994. It had also supported a five-year plan concerned with introducing anti-doping and doping awareness programs in coordination with International Olympic Committee (IOC). The plan was significantly successful from 1995 to 2000. In fact, 18 forums were held in various Arab countries that were of a significant benefit to 1403 athletes in all 22 Arabic-speaking countries.  It is also worth mentioning that, at the end of the plan, the First Arab Anti-Doping Convention was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  2. Enforcement of the Anti-Doping program for the first time at the 8th Pan Arab Games in Beirut, Lebanon in 1997 and at the 9th Pan Arab Games in Amman, Jordan in 1999.

It is also worth mentioning that I was the only representative of the UANOC in the four IOC meetings in Lausanne, Switzerland that were held in 1999 to formulate the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).


You have received accolades from the IOC and within Saudi Arabia relating to your anti-doping work – what does this recognition mean to you?

MK: Yes, I am the recipient of two accolades. One was from Prince Alexandre de Merode for my work in anti-doping programs. The second award was from the International Sports Medicine Association, in addition to several awards granted by various Saudi governmental entities. There is no doubt that these awards are gratifying; however, I was up against bigger challenges. As you know, success is hard to achieve, but what is even more difficult is maintaining this success. As a result, I was confronted with additional challenges to maintain this status.


What do you think are currently the greatest impediments to ensuring clean sport across the world?

MK: There are several main reasons, in addition to, the cultural reasons in each country and how developed it is.

  1. Intense competition in some sports, as well as popularity gains and financial rewards that some athletes seek to achieve, may—in some cases—lead to doping abuse, and I think cyclist Lance Armstrong’s case remains vivid in our minds to this day.
  2. Some administrative and athletic teams may propel athletes to take performance enhancement drugs to achieve better results, which guarantees money, fortunes, and better contracts.
  3. Performance enhancement drugs have become a multi-billion dollar industry. In which it has its own thriving black market; production, smuggling, and trafficking is made through an underground network of traders.


Your country Saudi Arabia has a zero tolerance approach on the consumption of drugs and alcohol, but the SAADC only has the authority to penalize and punish in the sports world – can you describe this balance?

MK: The Anti-Doping Code and the UNESCO Convention have been approved from the highest authority of the state (the Consultative Assembly Council then the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia). Based on this approval, the Saudi Arabian Anti-Doping Code was also endorsed.

It is well known that the Saudi government bans alcohol and drugs based on Islamic laws. And considers alcohol and drug trade as illegal. On the one hand, it imposes various degrees of punishments on smugglers that may reach up to the death penalty, particularly against drug and narcotics traders. Whereas, on the other, there are several rehab centers and hospitals in the country’s major cities that treat addicts. Based on that, the government does not punish addicts; rather all efforts are focused on addiction treatment and drug trade eradication.

Accordingly, the president of the General Presidency of Youth Welfare and the Interior Ministry forged an agreement that entails implementing anti-doping regulations in cases related to alcohol and narcotics abuse. Nevertheless, we closely coordinate with the Saudi security departments and customs to detect performance enhancement drugs and illegal drugs distribution and storage facilities. We also coordinate with the Saudi Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) to monitor performance enhancement drugs and hormone prescriptions.


To what extent have your various high profile positions on different sporting bodies given you a useful platform to raise anti-doping issues?

MK: Participating as a member or a president of sports organizations on local, regional, or international levels has exposed me to various experiences and skills. I have also learned from mishaps made in the past. I also think that the sports world requires organizations that adapt justice and equality, and supports a code of ethics that should become its mission of conduct. 

Another factor is the ease of communicating with concerned decision-makers. That alone helps in reinforcing the importance of anti-doping programs in order to protect athletes, establish the Play True message, and avoid cheating in sports.


How advanced is anti-doping practice across the Gulf region?

MK: Gulf states are represented through the Gulf Corporation Council and Yemen Regional Anti-Doping Organization (RADO). The Gulf region has distinguished itself in regards to the seriousness of implementing anti-doping programs. I also assure you that five out of the seven states in the RADO have effective, and advanced anti-doping programs. The other two states are working hard to develop their programs as well. Additionally, officials in these countries are extremely interested in sports. They have stated their support for Qatar’s establishment of anti-doping laboratory, which is currently in the final stages of accreditation, and whose date of operation is estimated to be in early 2015.

I would also want to point out that leaders of Gulf States, youth ministers, and presidents of Gulf States Olympic Committees have issued numerous resolutions reiterating the importance of implementing, supporting, and endorsing anti-doping programs in all regional sports events. We can conclude that anti-doping doping programs in Gulf States have strong support from leaders and sports authorities in the region.


You were elected Chairperson of the UNESCO Conference of Parties last year – how much progress have you been able to make through this role?

MK: As a WADA Foundation Board member, I am working on the integration and harmonization of the UNESCO Convention and the 2015 WADA Code.

For the first time since the ratification of the UNESCO Convention in 2005, the elected council board convened with UNESCO officials. Moreover, several discussions took place; most significantly were assessing states’ implementation of the Convention through field studies in coordination with University of West Paris. Another working group will conduct studies on supplements that may contain prohibited substances. 

Discussions also resulted in allocating a budget from the UNESCO Anti-Doping Fund to conduct both studies. These meetings have also established a protocol to maintain contact with UNESCO anti-doping officials, which was not organized in the past.

We explored how to harmonize the 2015 WADA Code and UNESCO Convention by consulting with UNESCO’s legal department. On a final note, it is crucial that both the WADA Code and the UNESCO Convention are the regulatory and legal tools for sports organizations and governments to fight doping in sports effectively.