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What does Israel-UAE normalization mean for football?

September 28, 2020

Football looks set to play a significant role as the Gulf state normalizes relations with Israel. Israeli players are being linked with moves to the UAE, with Gulf investors reportedly showing interest in Israeli clubs.

Fußball Spieler Israel Beram Kayal
Image: Vagelis Georgariou/Action Plus/Imago Images

History has, once again, been made in the Middle East. Israel recently signed normalization agreements with two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which become the third and fourth Arab countries to normalize 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 cooperations,” 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 specializing in the Gulf states told DW that 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.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced a cooperation between Israel and the UAEImage: Reuters/A. Sultan

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 labeling 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 fanbase 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.

"For us, money doesn't play a role, principles do," the group posted on its Facebook page. "We'd like to remind everyone that 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." The group ended its post with "Mi Lahashem Elay," ("those who stand with God, come with me”) a biblical battle cry calling soldiers to fight for God and the Jewish people.

Israeli players linked with UAE moves

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.

Uri Levy is a journalist covering football in the Middle East and the editor of Babagol. Speaking about the prospects of Israeli players moving to UAE clubs, Levy believes it could be an important stepping stone in the relations between both countries.

"The first Israeli player to sign for a club in the Emirates will probably be the second most-famous Israeli in the UAE after Prime Minister Netanyahu," Levy told DW. "He'll practically be Israel's ambassador, maybe more than the country's actual ambassador in Abu Dhabi."

Israel: Gateway to European football?

Levy has also used his podcast with the Israeli public broadcaster Kan to suggest an interesting idea, which could benefit both countries, their people and their football development.

While the UAE plays in Asia, Israel's football association and its football clubs play in UEFA competitions, a fact Levy argues players from the Gulf could use in their favor: By signing for Israeli clubs, they will not only promote understanding between the two people, they will also be able to showcase their talent in European competitions.

While the high wages players earn in the UAE could prove a stumbling block, Levy believes the aspiration of playing in European competitions would still provide an attraction to players from the Gulf to join top Israeli clubs.

"We live in an era when everything we thought was impossible is slowly becoming possible," says Levy. "Just a month and a half ago a normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE looked like a distant dream, it is now reality. So why not?"