Amid Uproar, UAE Backtracks on Ban of Israeli Tennis Players

Don QuixoteContributor IFebruary 19, 2009

The United Arab Emirates state news agency WAM confirmed reports Thursday that the UAE will allow Israeli tennis player Andy Ram into the country for the men's Dubai Tennis Championships beginning Sunday.

The UAE created an international controversy last Saturday when it refused to admit female Israeli player Shahar Peer into the country. Tournament organizers cited security concerns for their decision, but most observers believed the decision was based entirely on anti-Semitic bigotry in the country, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Women’s Tennis Association allowed this year’s tournament to proceed, but its chairman and CEO indicated that the Dubai tournament might lose its place on the WTA tour.

The Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body of the men’s tour, said that the UAE must “make the right decision,” though it issued no specific threats of action.

New York congressman Anthony Weiner pressured UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba to allow Ram into the country, saying that refusing Peer’s entry was “a setback for a nation that had made commendable efforts to foster understanding and tolerance.”

On Wednesday, Weiner informed the media that the UAE would admit Ram. “I think they recognized that this was not the message they wanted and I commend them for changing their position,” he told Bloomberg.

Background: Peer Rejected by UAE

Despite knowing months in advance that Peer was likely to be entered in the tournament, the UAE denied Peer a visa on Saturday, the day before the tournament was scheduled to begin.

The Women’s Tennis Association was critical of the decision, but allowed the tournament to go on as planned. The U.S.-based Tennis Channel chose not to cover the tournament and The Wall Street Journal Europe pulled its sponsorship, but the tournament’s major sponsors, Barclays and Sony Ericsson, chose not to take any action.

Tournament organizers claimed that the decision to bar Peer was made to avoid violent protests over the recent conflict in Gaza.

Peer had been the subject of anti-Israel protests at a January tournament in New Zealand. “Ms. Peer’s presence would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza,” said the tournament director.

Article originally published at findingDulcinea

Historical Context: Conflicts with Israeli athletes

Israeli athletes are frequently at the center of controversies involving Muslim countries in the Middle East, who often will not admit Israelis into the country or even allow their athletes to compete against Israelis in other locales.

The Israeli soccer federation was expelled from the Asian Football Confederation in 1974 because many member countries, most of them in the Middle East, had refused to play against the Israelis. Israel currently plays in the European confederation, with little chance of it returning to the AFC soon.

Ironically, Iran hosted Israel at the 1974 Asian Cup and agreed to play them. In the last two Summer Olympics, Iranian athletes have forfeited rather than compete against Israeli athletes.

In 2004, Iran’s flag-bearer, judo competitor Arash Miresmaeili, didn’t make weight for a match against an Israeli. He was congratulated by the Iranian government, which released a statement saying, “Our policy is not to recognize the Zionist regime in any international event.”

A similar situation occurred in 2008, when Iranian swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei claimed that he was too ill to swim in a heat that included an Israeli swimmer.

Iran’s refusal to compete against Israelis even extended to the 2008 Paralympics; its wheelchair basketball team forfeited a game against the United States because it could have faced Israel if it won.

Opinion & Analysis: Furor over the exclusion of Peer

Jim Litke of The Associated Press criticizes the WTA for failing to take decisive action against the Dubai tournament, writing that it is part of a larger failure by sporting organizers to defend Israeli athletes against discrimination.

“Every time a team or athlete from a neighboring Middle East state refuses to meet their Israeli counterparts on a playing field, the people who sanction the event … pretend to be shocked,” he writes.

“Then they promise the next time it happens, they’ll bite the hand that feeds them. Then they do what they always do: take the money and kick the Israelis down the road.”

Michael Freund argues in the Jerusalem Post that the WTA should have cancelled the tournament. “Indeed, what is truly ‘regrettable’ is that both the WTA and the players themselves did not put principle before prize money,” he writes.

“Dubai essentially hung a large ‘No Jews Allowed’ sign over center court, but that didn't seem to bother anyone enough to cancel the tournament.”

The Guardian’s Richard Williams examines how the UAE’s decision will affect Dubai’s quest to become a world-class sports destination. Dubai is in the process of building multiple state-of-the-art stadiums in the hopes of hosting premier sporting events and possibly the Olympic Games.

“But can a place with such aspirations justify a policy that excludes competitors from countries with which it has political, religious or cultural differences?” asks Williams, who adds, “if they want to be a part of the community of world sport, they must play by all of the rules all of the time and not just when it suits them.”

Article originally published at findingDulcinea