Dubai gave another Israeli, Andy Ram, a visa to play in last week’s men’s open after world tennis officials threatened to strip it of the right to hold the competition next year.
Now the emirate is counting on the March 5-7 rugby championship to put the Peer controversy behind it, said J.E. Peterson, an expert on the Arab Gulf states affiliated to the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “They’re hoping that in the long- term, the Peer affair won’t have much impact,” he said.
It may take more than a diplomatic flip-flop and one successful sporting event to reverse the damage to Dubai’s image. The emirate seeks to portray itself as a playground for some of the world’s premier sporting events to enhance its status as a regional business hub.
“I don’t think that the full effect is known yet,” said WTA Chairman Larry Scott in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg, Florida. “The decision not to allow Peer in put a lot of terrific investments and efforts at risk.”
Scott said various businesses and cultural and scientific organizations, which he declined to identify, had expressed concern to him at Peer’s treatment.
Asked about the fallout over the Peer decision, Salah Tahlak, director of the tennis tournament, which is staged by government-owned Dubai Duty Free, said he was confident the tournament and other events, will grow and “showcase Dubai as a first-class sports and leisure destination.”
The rugby tournament is being held in the Gulf State for the first time in its 16-year history and will be broadcast live to a global audience of 400 million in 200 countries.
It’s one of an increasing number of high-profile sporting events the emirate hosts, such as the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race, and the Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament. Dubai is also home to the world governing body for cricket, the International Cricket Council.
The emirate is building a 50 million-square foot Sports City, to be completed next year, at a cost of $3.6 billion with an 18-hole championship golf course, a global cricket academy and Manchester United’s first soccer school.
To overcome the Peer affair, Dubai has to draw rock solid lessons, said U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat who approached the U.A.E. ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, to urge him to arrange a visa for Ram.
“Dubai has earned a reputation of a moderate, welcoming face of the Middle East in large part by playing host to sporting events that attract people from around the world,” Weiner said in a phone interview from Washington. “It’s unfortunate that Peer was a victim.”
Along those same line, the WTA Tour CEO was told their would be no problems with the Israeli.
It was the last thing the leader of women’s professional tennis expected to hear, a stunning development in the dead of night that would quickly ignite an international firestorm entwining sports and politics.
Officials of Dubai, the most modern country among the United Arab Emirates, had denied Israel’s Shahar Peer entry into the country for the Dubai Open. And they did so despite months of personal assurances to Scott that she would be allowed to compete.
“I was horrified,” he recalled, upon being told that Peer was out with the tournament set to start in less than 24 hours.
The story made headlines around the world as outrage erupted over the exclusion of an Israeli athlete in an event in an Arab nation due to “security concerns,” stemming from Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip. It also placed Scott and the Women’s Tennis Association smack in the middle of the backlash.
News outlets criticized the CEO of the WTA Tour for not promptly pulling his players out of the high-profile event in a show of solidarity with Peer.
The facts that surfaced in news coverage dealt mostly with Venus Williams winning the women’s title amid the controversy and the abrupt announcement from organizers midway through the competition that Israel’s Andy Ram would be allowed to play in the men’s event that followed. (Andy Roddick refused to defend his Dubai Open title to protest Shahar Peer’s treatment.)