Shahar Peer, a 21-year-old Israeli tennis player, was yesterday at the centre of a sporting controversy that could have implications throughout the Arab world. Peer was due to play in this week's Dubai Tennis Championships but she was informed that the United Arab Emirates had refused to grant her a visa.
The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision and hinted that it might scrap the tournament in future years. The loss of the event would be a major setback to the UAE, while the repercussions could be felt elsewhere in the Gulf, where huge amounts have been invested in bringing top-level sport and tourists to the region.
Last year, Peer became the first Israeli to compete in a professional women's tennis event in a Gulf state when she played in the Qatar Open in Doha. Her brother, Shlomi Peer, said yesterday that she had applied for a visa for the UAE months in advance, and had been assured by the tournament that she would be allowed entry.
A statement by the organiser, Dubai Duty Free, which is owned by the UAE government, confirmed that the visa had not been granted but gave no explanation. There will inevitably be speculation that the decision was made in response to Israel's recent actions in Gaza. Qatar suspended some low-level contacts in protest at Israel's military offensive. Although the UAE has no diplomatic ties with Israel, some Israelis have entered the Emirates for sporting and business events using passports issued elsewhere. Israeli passport holders have also attended meetings there organised by the UN or other international agencies.
The Women's Tennis Association has a rule that no host country should deny a player the chance to compete at a tournament for which she has qualified. Peer, who did national service in the Israeli army, was entitled to play in Dubai through her ranking. She is currently the world No.48.
Larry Scott, chairman and chief executive of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, the body that supervises the tournament, described the UAE's decision as "regrettable". The Tour considered abandoning this week's tournament but allowed it to proceed "pending further review", he said.
He added: "Ms Peer and her family are obviously extremely upset and disappointed by the decision of the UAE and its impact on her personally and professionally, and the Tour is reviewing appropriate remedies for Ms Peer and also will review appropriate future actions with regard to the future of the Dubai tournament."
Fellow players came out in support of Peer, who was the subject of protests by spectators at a tournament in New Zealand last month. "We're athletes," said the reigning Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, of the US. "We are not standing for anything except good tennis. That's all she's standing for. I think all the players have to stand together in whatever direction we go in."
In Israel there was concern that Dubai's action might set a precedent. "This is not just about Israel," said a foreign ministry spokesman. "For international sports events, you need to relegate politics to the political sphere. Can you imagine the Olympic Games with only friends of the host country participating?"
However, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel welcomed Peer's exclusion. "During apartheid rule in South Africa, a similar sports boycott contributed significantly to isolating the state and treating it as an international pariah," spokesman Omar Barghouti said.
"Israel, with its occupation, denial of refugee rights and system of racial discrimination deserves exactly the same treatment."