- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates | Israeli Andy Ram will be allowed to compete in a Dubai tennis tournament next week after the Arab country said Thursday it would permit the seventh-ranked doubles player to cross its borders.

The United Arab Emirates came under sharp criticism after it banned Israeli women’s tennis player Shahar Peer earlier this week from entering the country to participate in the lucrative Dubai Tennis Championships. Organizers said they feared fan anger over Israel’s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip would spill into riots in the Persian Gulf country if Peer were to play.

Tennis officials warned that holding future tennis events in Dubai could be in doubt if the Emirates - which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel - continued to ban Israelis. The ATP, which runs next week’s men’s tournament, gave the nation a Friday evening deadline to decide whether to grant Ram a visa.

“No player who qualifies to play an ATP World Tour event should be denied their right to compete on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion, and we are happy that the Dubai Tennis Championships and the Emirates have shown that they share that view,” ATP President Adam Helfant said.

Ram said he was pleased with the Emirates’ decision - and said his focus was now on tennis.

“As a professional tennis player, I thrive on competing at the world’s best events, and the next week will be no different,” Ram said.

Peer described the Emirates’ decision to allow Ram to play as a “great victory” and said while it was unfortunate that she could not participate this week, she looked forward to competing in Dubai next year.

“I hope and believe that from this day forward athletes from all over the world will be able to compete in the U.A.E. and anywhere else in the world without discrimination of any kind,” Peer said.

Top past and present tennis players spoke out against the Emirates’ ban on Israelis - including Billie Jean King and Venus and Serena Williams - saying sports and politics should not mix.

“I think it’s wonderful that Andy Ram has the opportunity to play,” Venus Williams said Thursday after defeating Elena Dementieva in the women’s tournament, which ends Saturday. “We are all athletes, and we have no platform. We are here to play tennis, we are entertainers and I am happy he has the opportunity to do that.”

Her sister, top-ranked Serena, said: “Obviously, I am not for discrimination. Everyone bleeds red blood, and everyone should get an equal opportunity.”

The head of the Emirates’ consular affairs department said a “special permit” had been granted for Ram but did not give a specific reason why Ram was allowed to participate and not Peer. Sultan al-Qurtasi told the state-run news agency that the decision was part of the Emirates’ “commitment” to international sport, educational and economic events without placing obstacles to individual participation.

Despite its glitzy skyscrapers and desire to host big-time global sporting events, Dubai has struggled to merge its international party appeal with its conservative Muslim values. Canadian author Margaret Atwood also announced this week that she was pulling out of next week’s Dubai literary festival because organizers banned a novel by a British author that references homosexuality.

Larry Scott, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, told the Associated Press that the Emirates has guaranteed him that Peer would be allowed to participate in the tournament next year. But Scott said he wanted Emirati officials to put that promise in writing.

“We’re encouraged by this statement and the apparent change in policy by the tournament and the U.A.E. government,” Scott said. “But before I’m going to put Dubai on our 2010 calendar 100 percent, there are additional guarantees, assurances and measures we are going to require to just make 100 percent sure what happened last week couldn’t possibly happen again.”

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