- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates | Security worries led authorities to bar an Israeli woman from playing in a Dubai tennis tournament, organizers said Tuesday as a new showdown loomed between the nation’s hunger for big-time sports events and its stance on Mideast political tensions.

The statement from the Dubai Tennis Championships - citing fan anger over Israel’s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip - was its first detailed defense since a visa was denied at the last minute for Shahar Peer, the 48th-ranked women’s player in the world.

But it also raised the potential for further uproar, since Israeli doubles player Andy Ram is seeking to compete in the men’s rounds next week.

The overseers of world tennis tours seemed determined not to ease up in their outrage at the United Arab Emirates over the snub of Peer just before the tournament began Sunday.

The Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour, said the UAE must “make the right decision.” The Women’s Tennis Association warned that the fallout could include dropping Dubai from its calendar.

The Tennis Channel canceled plans to televise this weekend’s coverage of the women’s tournament.

“Preventing an otherwise qualified athlete from competing on the basis of anything other than merit has no place in tennis or any other sport, and has the unfortunate result of undermining the credibility of the very nature of competition itself,” the network said.

The Wall Street Journal Europe, meanwhile, announced it had withdrawn as one of the sponsors of the Dubai Tennis Championships. It said the rejection of Peer ran counter to the newspaper’s editorial philosophy of “free markets and free people.”

Peer’s rejection is raising questions about the Emirates’ credibility as a high-profile sports host if regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict can intrude.

For the UAE, it’s a serious and potentially costly dilemma.

Its main centers, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have used sports to enhance their image as more than just places of skyscraper forests and headline-catching projects such as artificial islands and indoor skiing. The world’s top athletes - from Tiger Woods to marathoner Haile Gebrselassie - are now regulars.

Yet the UAE also portrays itself as a champion of the Palestinians. It even canceled lavish New Year’s celebrations in Dubai in solidarity with the Gazans during the recent combat.

“We do not wish to politicize sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE,” according to the tournament statement read to reporters by director Salah Tahlak.

It said the organizer, Dubai Duty Free, feared Peer’s “presence would have antagonized our fans” because of the fighting between Israel and the Hamas militant group in Gaza.

Three weeks of violence killed about 1,300 Palestinians, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis died, including three civilians, before a tentative cease-fire halted fighting Jan. 18.

The tournament statement expressed concern that Peer’s presence might lead to protests, boycotts and threats to the player’s “well being.”

Such demonstrations or security threats are rare in the UAE, but the statement suggested there were particular worries of unrest by conservative groups or the many imported Muslim laborers from Pakistan and elsewhere.

Tennis groups are now waiting to see whether the Emirates reverses course and allows in Ram, who is ranked No. 7 in the world in doubles.

Ram’s lawyer, Amit Naor, told the Associated Press that the player is in Marseilles, France, and awaiting word if he will be allowed in by Dubai.

“Andy wants to play. He’s not interested in all the other stuff,” Naor said. “He’s not looking for trouble, he’s looking to play. … We thought politics was already out of sports.”

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