The name of Sol Mokdad has become a famous one in rugby league circles in the last couple of years.
The Saudi Arabian-born Lebanese, who has lived in Australia and New Zealand as well as the UK, became a hero to the league community globally in 2015 when he was jailed in the United Arab Emirates, seemingly for the crime of organising a rugby league competition.
Thankfully, he managed to extricate himself from jail and is now back in Lebanon, where he is continuing his work in rugby league.
But his story is a fascinating one, and gives pointers as to the potentially massive and wide appeal of our great game.
Mokdad himself was introduced to the sport in Lebanon as a student, with the game having taken root there thanks to the efforts of Lebanese-Australians who established an international side which played its first game in 1998.
“I was introduced to rugby [union] back in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where I was born and spent most of my childhood,” explained Mokdad.
“When I moved to Lebanon for my University degree, I was interested in playing rugby and rugby league was growing and getting quite popular within the Universities.
“I am originally of Lebanese descent, but have spent most of my life as an expat living abroad.
“I used to follow the NRL and Origin, however I first played rugby league when I was recruited at a bar in Beirut by one of the teams at the age of 17.
“We trained at a school that had a sand football field, but it was enough for us to train and keep motivated, even though the ground wasn’t in our favour (I still have the scars to prove it!).
“I have also represented Lebanon and played rugby league abroad.”
One of those places abroad where Mokdad has played and administered rugby league is, of course, the United Arab Emirates, a place whose wealth has made it a magnet for sporting events from across the globe.
The Sydney Roosters even stopped off there on the way to the World Club Series this year, despite the recent controversy.
It was even held up as a potential World Cup host before things went wrong, largely Mokdad suspects, as a result of the political machinations of rugby union.
“I established rugby league in the UAE back in 2007, about six months after I had moved there,” Mokdad explained to Love Rugby League.
“Rugby union is massive in the UAE, especially with the annual Dubai Rugby Sevens, and the presence of a large expatriate community in the country.
“I had met many players who were originally from a rugby league background, and was excited at the prospect of developing rugby league in the country.
“I was only 22 at the time, and maybe a little too ambitious. Unfortunately, with international rugby league development, you are left with no financial support, and that was our biggest obstacle, with rugby union soaking up most of the sponsorship available.
“In 2008, I approached the Ministry of Sport & Youth, and enquired about government recognition, this was before the establishment of the UAE Rugby Federation – the sport was run by the Arabian Gulf Rugby Union back then.
“I was told that as we are a new sport, we were required to develop the sport, involve Emiratis, and then come back to apply for recognition.”
At that stage, most of the funding for rugby league in the UAE was coming out of Mokdad and his fellow board members’ pockets, which was just one of the obstacles that they faced.
Sadly, almost as soon as things started to look like they were getting serious, there were some allegedly Machiavellian interventions from representatives of the other code.
“Most of the initial outlay to develop the sport was from my own pocket, along with support from some of the original Board members,” Mokdad added.
“We had our ups and down throughout the eight years we worked on the sport, and only started to mature from 2013 onwards.
“We had an international, followed by a domestic championship and were developing into a summer sport most players were looking forward to.
“Most of our players were involved in the rugby union season, and all four of our clubs were rugby union clubs. We had a Board, and we were an Observer Member of the Rugby League European Federation, with official government recognition high on our agenda.
“It was extremely difficult, with the Ministry of Youth and Sport only recognising UAE Rugby, and not knowing the difference between the two sports or their independence on a world governing body level.
“In 2013, and following the UAE Falcons’ win against Pakistan [in an international match], I was informed that the UAE Rugby Federation were looking to press charges.
“I contacted their office and went to a meeting to discuss how we can find an amicable solution.
“I asked for a meeting with the UAE Rugby Board, after advice from the Rugby League European Federation, which never materialised.
“We continued our development, and had a complete restructure and strategy for 2015. I had new people come on board, who I believed would add value to the development of the sport, as well as lead us in the right direction to acquire government recognition.
“I would like to thank Alistair Field and Ralph Khoury for the support in this organisation, because without them I would have lost faith in our mission.”
It was in 2015 that things started getting weird, though, and for Mokdad, serious, as a string of events unwound which would see him incarcerated in an Emirati prison cell.
“We kicked off the 2015 season with a bang, after securing sponsorship which covered our initial costs to run the championship,” he said.
“We had extensive media coverage both locally and globally, which was what unfortunately put us in a situation that led to my arrest.
“Following a conversation with one of the local newspapers, an article was written where I had said that the UAE would be a perfect venue for the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, and that we would love to host it by getting involved with the government and strategic partners.
“The article went viral, and was published in the UK and Australian media. The article was then translated and published in an Arabic newspaper in the UAE, where I was mentioned as the UAE Rugby Union President.
“Following this release, a press conference was held by UAE Rugby and the Ministry of Youth and Sport condemning the use of UAE within any non-recognised sporting body in the UAE.
“UAE Rugby League was then re-branded to the Rugby League Commission.I was then informed by a friend in the UAE Rugby office that a warrant was out for my arrest, and I informed this to the Rugby League European Federation, who could not take any action because I had no documentation to support the claim.
“I reached out to UAE Rugby, and asked for a meeting, which was scheduled, then cancelled. I sent another email asking for a reply, but received nothing.
“Later that week I was asked to attend a Sports Industry Forum, and was asked to be on the panel to speak about the development of the sport.
“When I attended the forum, I was requested by the organiser not to speak, following an order from Dubai Sports Council as not to cause any controversy at the forum.
“I decided to stay and listen to the speakers, as this was relevant to our development and my professional development. During the forum, my flatmate sent me a message telling me to get out, because the police were coming to arrest me.
“I packed my bags and made a swift exit, however was caught at the door by undercover police, and the rest is well documented.”
Mokdad spent time in jail with people who were there for farting in lifts,and taking selfies which had included an Emirati without asking her permission – something to think about in itself when it comes to considering the UAE as a potential venue for rugby league.
He is in no doubt about who was behind his arrest, either.
“From my point of view, I can safely say that UAE Rugby were behind my arrest,” he said.
“However, I cannot blame the sport of rugby union for it. UAE Rugby, along with the Ministry of Youth & Sport wanted all codes of Rugby Football under one Federation, which is not manageable.
“I believe that if UAE Rugby had replied to my meeting requests, we would have been able to find an amicable solution. The situation was managed poorly, and the entire situation could have been solved with a meeting.
“I never wanted to go to prison, and lose the life I built in the UAE, including my job and my business. The charges were dropped and I was free to go, but it was a little too late for me to recover.
“I was in between jobs and my visa had expired as I was waiting for my new employer to process my residency visa, which was also an obstacle after my arrest.
“This is a common case and all you have to do is pay a fine for the overstay and you’re clear.
“When I was arrested, I was constantly question about the 800,000 AED I took from one of our sponsors, which is a ridiculous figure, considering the value of the sponsorship was on 10,000 AED, which hadn’t even been paid to us yet.
“After hours of interrogation, the police understood my case, and put the blame on the Arabic newspaper that initiated the whole scenario.
“The prison itself was not that bad, but the whole process of managing your own case from inside is near impossible. There is only one telephone and the queue is about three hours long, with a limit of five minutes per phone call.”
Many would expect that Mokdad would want to forget about the UAE completely after such an ordeal.
But it is testament to the man’s character that he still believes rugby league has the potential to grow in the UAE, if it is properly understood and supported.
“There is a huge interest for rugby league in the UAE, and like I always said, a huge potential for international growth utitilising the qualities and nature of the country,” he said.
“Rugby league can only be re-established in the UAE if the government recognises the sport, and I am sure that when and if they do, it will grow rapidly as the sport has a lot to offer to the community.”
Mokdad also feels that the sport has plenty to offer to the Middle East in general, but that the conflicts which plague the region only serve to hamper its growth.
“There is huge potential for rugby league to grow in the Middle East,” he said.
“It’s quite big here in Lebanon albeit poorly developed due to financial restrictions, but I believe the conflict actually limits our resources and growth.
“Most governments, outside of the GCC, don’t have huge budgets for sport, and most of it is spent on football and basketball, where rugby league is low in the pecking order of funding.
“Lebanon for example, have not received any ample funding from the government, even though they qualified for the World Cup.
“They also struggle to keep players past the collegiate level, as most players migrate to find better career and living opportunities abroad.
“The fact that there is no financial support to develop the sport regionally, instantly put us on the back foot, compared to rugby union who are flourishing with their sponsored ‘Get Into Rugby’ programme and the sevens format of the sport.
“We need to address the sport as a business; passion and ambition can only get us so far before we have to invest in the business to develop and reap the rewards.”
Thankfully, Mokdad has not been lost to the sport, and is continuing his work as an administrator and coach in Lebanon.
“I am currently based in Lebanon and working with the Lebanese Rugby League Federation on a volunteer role as Operations Officer,” he said.
“I am also employed by the American University of Beirut as Head Coach of the Junior Varsity and Women’s Rugby League teams.
“I love the sport, and even though many people thought I would turn by back on it following the events in the UAE, I find it very hard to do so.
“My plans are to help bolster the Lebanese Rugby League Federation with my expertise, gain further experience from the role, and see Lebanon succeed in the 2017 World Cup.”
As for his favourite player, it may also be a surprise that Mokdad’s hero is currently playing the other code.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Sonny Bill Williams, and was honoured to meet him when he visited Lebanon as part of a UNICEF initiative,” he said.
“He is a true sportsman, and also found the time to visit the American University of Beirut where I coach.
“The Warriors are my NRL team, and I also support the NSW Blues when it comes to State Of Origin.
With a positive nature, and the kind of resolve which comes from facing true adversity, one hopes that Mokdad is involved in our sport for many more years to come, and soon reaps some of the rewards his efforts duly deserve.