LONDON (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates defused a political storm on Thursday after it was forced to change 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 u-turn 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 organizations 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 normalization 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.
“It is also a victory for sport as a whole, and the power of sport to bring people together.
“It is still very unfortunate that due to the decision of the Dubai tournament and the UAE, I could not participate in the tournament this year. This has hurt me significantly both personally and professionally,” she added.
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.
“The fact that people want to harm (Israeli players) is simply an excuse,” Ram’s regular doubles partner Jonathan Erlich, who is sidelined with an injury, told Israeli radio.
“As far as I’m concerned, they can surround the players with the entire army, the players need to be able to play.”
While tournament officials declined to comment on security arrangements they intend to put in place for Ram, Scott was adamant the event would still be penalized because of the treatment of Peer.
“We, with the ATP, did our own independent security analysis and the argument about security was not justifiable last week. And with today’s statement, it’s obvious that was not a genuine issue and not the real reason behind this (ban),” he said.
“The fact they fixed their policy going forward doesn’t make it okay what happened last week and those issues need to be addressed,” added Scott, who has called a board meeting on Friday to discuss possible punishments.
“There will still be very significant sanctions on the tournament for denying a player... entry for no good reason.
“There are additional guarantees I am going to require before we would put the Dubai tournament on our 2010 calendar.”
Australian Open champion Serena Williams added: “In the day and age like this everyone bleeds red blood and everyone to me (should have) an equal opportunity.”
Peer hoped this episode would send out a message to the rest of the world and would never be repeated.
“I hope and believe that from this day forward, athletes from all over the world will be able to compete in the UAE and anywhere else in the world without discrimination of any kind,” she said. “I look forward to competing in Dubai next year.”
(Additional reporting by Firouz Sedarat and Barry Wood in Dubai and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem)
Editing by Ken Ferris
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