Shahar Peer, Shahar Peer dubai, Shahar Peer uae
Andrew Brownbill/AP
Israel's Shahar Peer

UAE Ban of Israeli Tennis Player Nothing New for Israeli Athletes

February 17, 2009 02:02 PM
by Denis Cummings
Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was refused a visa to play in Dubai, becoming the latest Israeli athlete banned from competing in a Muslim country.

Peer Rejected by UAE

The United Arab Emirates on Saturday denied a visa to Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer, who was scheduled to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships beginning Sunday. The UAE, like most Muslim countries, has no diplomatic relations with Israel and commonly refuses to accept Israeli visas.

Larry Scott, head of the international Women’s Tennis Association, told the Daily Telegraph that he considered canceling the tournament, but, with the backing of Peer, allowed it to go on. He said that the $2 million tournament could lose its place on the tour next year.

The Tennis Channel has chosen not to cover the tournament and The Wall Street Journal Europe pulled its sponsorship. The tournament’s major sponsors, Barclays and Sony Ericsson, chose not to take any action.

Last February, Peer became the first Israeli tennis player to play in a Persian Gulf country when she played in the Doha Open in Qatar. Scott said that the tour began preparing for Peer to play in Dubai last year, but the UAE was still unable to process Peer’s visa in time.

Tournament organizers said Tuesday that the decision was made due to security reasons: “Ms. Peer’s presence would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza,” said the tournament director. Peer had been the subject of protests at a January tournament in New Zealand.

The tournament is facing a similar decision this week. Israeli player Andy Ram, one of the top doubles players in the world, is trying to enter the men’s tournament in Dubai scheduled to begin Sunday. Neither Ram nor the Association of Tennis Professionals has received word on whether Ram will be allowed into the country.

Background: 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: Assessing the decision by the UAE and WTA

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.”

Related Topic: Female driver banned in Saudi Arabia

An unidentified female driver was excluded from last month’s Hail Baja Rally in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive. Upon learning about the ban, the governing body FIA decided that the result of the race would not be included in its championship points standings.

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