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Israel-UAE deal pivots on soccer diplomacy

While links between Cairo and Amman have been forged on governmental level, the frosty relationships between citizens may prove more difficult to bypass, with cooperation between individuals and businesses likely to remain fraught with difficulties.

Israel-UAE deal pivots on soccer diplomacy
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Football looks set to play a significant role as the Gulf state normalises relations with Israel. Israeli players are being linked with moves to the UAE, with Gulf investors reportedly showing interest in Israeli clubs. History has, once again, been made in the Middle East. Israel recently signed normalisation agreements with two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which become the third and fourth Arab countries to normalise their relations with the Jewish state after Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994).

“This will be a warm peace which will be based on many economic co-operations,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “For the first time, Israel is going to be open to investments from within the Middle East. This is huge.” While links between Cairo and Amman have been forged on governmental level, the frosty relationships between citizens may prove more difficult to bypass, with cooperation between individuals and businesses likely to remain fraught with difficulties.

But Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute specialising in the Gulf states said while there could be resistance, she’s optimistic as to the prospects of Israelis and Emiratis working together. “The only way to get over such superstitions is meeting and talking to each other, and that’ll now start happening,” she said.

Sporting connections

One area where cooperation does seem more likely between individuals and institutions from both countries is sports, and in particular football. Indeed, there are already precedents of Israeli sportspeople competing in the UAE, such as the 2018 judo Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, where Israeli judoka Sagi Muki won a gold medal, resulting in the Israeli anthem being played in an official competition in the UAE for the first time. “The opportunity for sportspeople from Israel to compete in the UAE was there, but it will certainly expand now,” said Young.

As soon as the new deal became public knowledge, reports about Emirati investments in Israeli football clubs started emerging. One of Israeli club Hapoel Tel Aviv’s owners has already said he’s in contact with businessmen from the UAE who may wish to invest in the club, with Hapoel’s long history of cooperation between Jews and Arabs, both on and off the pitch, playing a role.

A club in Israel without such a history is Beitar Jerusalem. Beitar is known to be the only professional football club in Israeli football never to sign an Arab-Muslim player, with its supporters being largely associated with Israel’s political right. Beitar’s most prominent fan group, La Familia, is one of Israel’s most well-known far-right structures. The group has repeatedly held banners labelling their club as “forever pure from Arabs,” with its operations stretching beyond Israel’s stadia, most recently taking violent part at right-wing protests in support of Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu. Moshe Hogeg, the Israeli businessman who has owned Beitar Jerusalem since 2018, has been attempting to combat racist tendencies among the club’s own fan-base since taking over.

Now, the club has made a somewhat surprising announcement on its website. “The club is happy to announce Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg will fly over to the UAE to discuss the possibility of a big investment in the club,” it read. Far-right fan group La Familia weren’t pleased with the club’s announcement. The group posted on its Facebook page, “Jerusalem is a holy city for Jews, and that Beitar is the only team in the world to have the Jewish Menorah as its symbol.” But cooperation between the two countries looks imminent and inevitable. A report on respected football blog Babagol suggests former Brighton midfielder Beram Kayal (pictured, top) is reportedly drawing interest from several clubs from the UAE, while striker Dia Saba, currently with Chinese side Guangzhou R&F, is reportedly about to become the first Israeli player to sign for an Emirati club when he joins Dubai’s Al Nassr SC.

— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle

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