UAE allows Israeli player to join championship
London, February 20, 2009
The UAE defused a political storm on Thursday after it changed its policy of barring Israeli athletes from competing in the Gulf state.
Five days after Shahar Peer was excluded from competing at the women's Dubai Championships, her fellow Israeli Andy Ram was given "special permission" by UAE authorities to play in the men's equivalent next week.
The move prevented a potential international sporting boycott of the UAE and Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chief Larry Scott said he had been assured all Israeli athletes would now be given "a special permit" by the UAE government to enter the country if they have qualified for a tournament.
"They had no idea of the international condemnation and the ripple effects, not just in the world of sport but beyond ... that they were starting to feel, in the worlds of business, arts, culture," Scott told Reuters in an interview.
"I had been in touch with heads of several other sports and people in the Olympic movement and there was shock and dismay over this decision (to deny Peer a visa) and real concern as to what the implications would be.
"I know certain organisations called for a sporting boycott or suspension of all sporting activities in the UAE until this policy was changed. So there were potential ramifications for all other sports."
The UAE, like most Arab countries, has no diplomatic ties with Israel and routinely denies entry to its citizens.
Tensions were heightened after the three-week Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, which killed some 1,300 Palestinians and 14 Israelis. Although the conflict ended in January it caused deep anger around the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Despite the allowances now being made for athletes, a UAE foreign ministry official said the rules would not be changed for regular Israeli civilians.
"This ... does not politically imply any form of normalisation with countries with which the UAE has no diplomatic relations," the official told state news agency Wam.
Gulf states have poured billions of dollars into building stadiums and buying stakes in sports franchises from soccer to motor racing. However, this week's backlash threatened to derail their plans to attract some of the world's top sporting events to their shores.
With players, officials, Jewish leaders and sponsors condemning the stand taken by the UAE, pressure was mounting on the ATP to cancel the men's event if Ram was also denied entry.
"This is a great victory for the principle that all athletes should be treated equally and without discrimination, regardless of gender, religion, race or nationality," Peer said.
Tournament officials had defended the decision to ban Peer, saying local fans would have boycotted the event if an Israeli was allowed to compete and that the player's safety could also have been compromised. - Reuters