DUBAI (Reuters) - Local tennis fans would have boycotted the Dubai women’s championships if Israeli player Shahar Peer had been allowed to compete this week, organisers said on Tuesday.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has no diplomatic links with Israel, denied Peer a visa for the WTA tournament.
“Public sentiment remains high in the Middle East and it is believed that Ms Peer’s presence would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza,” a statement read by tournament director Salah Tahlak said.
“Ms Peer personally witnessed protests against her at another tournament in New Zealand only a few weeks ago.
“Concern was raised about her well being and her presence triggering similar protests. Given public sentiment, the entire tournament could have been boycotted by protesters.
“We do not wish to politicise 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.”
The three-week Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, which killed 1,300 Palestinians and 14 Israelis, caused deep anger around the Arab and Muslim worlds. It ended in January.
The refusal to issue a visa to Peer violates WTA Tour rules, which state that any player should be able to compete where she wishes if she has the required ranking.
A WTA board meeting in Indian Wells next month will discuss the tournament’s future.
Peer backed the WTA’s decision to allow the tournament to be staged this week.
“While this is a very difficult moment for me personally and professionally, and the fact that the visa denial was issued at the last moment, I firmly believe that my fellow competitors should not be harmed the way I was,” Peer said in a statement.
“They were in or on their way to Dubai and denying them the right to play in this year’s tournament at the last moment would not make the wrong right.
“It troubles me greatly that my doubles partner Anna-Lena Groenefeld from Germany will not be able to compete as we had planned.
“Going forward, I am confident that the Tour will take appropriate actions to ensure that this injustice is not allowed to occur in the future, and that the Tour will make sure I will not be further harmed in the short and long term.
“There should be no place for politics or discrimination in professional tennis or indeed any sport.”
The episode could be replicated next week since Israel’s doubles specialist Andy Ram has applied for a visa to compete in the men’s Dubai tournament starting on Monday.
The ATP said it would review the status of the event once Ram is notified about his application.
“We are still waiting an official decision on Andy Ram’s visa application,” an ATP spokesman said.
“Clearly this is an opportunity for the UAE to make the right decision.”
Editing by John Mehaffey and Pritha Sarkar