Dudi Sela/ Courtesy of the Israeli Tennis Association .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nations that have decided to make peace with long-time adversaries often begin the process by making symbolic gestures in areas like sports. The classic example was China’s “ping pong diplomacy”; hosting the US table tennis team for friendly matches less than a year before Mao Zedong welcomed president Nixon to Beijing.
As the Gulf States are moving in the direction of working constructively with the United States to deliver what President Donald Trump has accurately termed “the ultimate deal” – a peace treaty between Israel and its Arab neighbors, let us examine sports engagement between Israel and the Gulf states.
Regrettably, some Gulf states have rejected the path of ping-pong diplomacy. For example, last month, in a disappointing move, the Saudis refused to grant visas to members of the Israeli chess team to participate in the first-ever international chess championship tournament to be held in the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates allowed Israeli athletes to take part in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam International Judo Tournament last October, but when Israeli athlete Tal Flicker won a gold medal, UAE authorities forbade the playing of the Israeli national anthem, the only anthem to be summarily banned.
Qatar, which is presently being subjected to an economic blockade by the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrain, this month allowed Israel’s number one tennis player, Dudi Sela, to take part in the Doha Open international tennis tournament. This gesture was in keeping with 2008 and 2016 visits by Israeli tennis and volleyball champions and with a promise by Hassan al-Thawadi, head of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizing committee, to The New York Times that the Israeli football team will be welcomed as well.
In Israel, sports and the Gulf, the playing field is uneven.
However, on the political front, there is cause for optimism.
Based on my frequent visits to the region, my own understanding of the political dynamic is as follows: On my first visit to the royal palace in Manama in 2011, King Hamad of Bahrain shared with me that Israel and the Gulf states face a common enemy in Iran and said that the key to maintaining a moderate Arab presence in the Middle East is a strong Israel. In 2016, King Hamad was successful in convincing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to formally label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has repeatedly emphasized to me during meetings over the past half decade that “the road to Middle East peace runs through Riyadh.” Saudi Arabia’s willingness to work together constructively with Israel became much clearer over the past year with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman.
Qatar has also moved in a positive direction. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, reassured me recently in Doha that his country is committed to fighting terrorism and extremism. His highness went even further praising the State of Israel and discussing opportunities for joint economic and commercial developments.
In fact, just last week, President Trump telephoned the emir to praise Qatar’s efforts in recent months to combat “terrorism and extremism,” and reiterated his support for a united GCC that is “focused on countering regional threats.”
Currently, the GCC is divided into two camps: Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain supporting the Qatari blockade, and Qatar, supported by Kuwait and Oman.
The president now understands that the blockade is counter-productive to the cause of peace and stability, and should be ended as soon as possible, with Qatar embraced by all members of the GCC.
I applaud President Trump’s regional peace initiative. The Trump/Pence administration has a supreme opportunity to garner all six Gulf states in realizing the ultimate deal but it will take the efforts of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who just arrived in Israel, to first resolve the conflict in the Gulf region.
Six states or three states: who is keeping score? The author is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the author of Sons of Abraham:
A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims.