Israel and UAE rugby teams face off in 1st match after new ties

A video of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was beamed onto the field with a dramatic speech about friendship.

By Associated Press

In the Middle East, where sport and diplomacy are closely intertwined, political passions can spill over onto the playing field.

On Friday, politics played a vastly different role. Months after the United Arab Emirates normalized ties with Israel, an Israeli national rugby squad touched down in Dubai to meet the Emirati team on the field for the first time. The more experienced Israeli team swiftly beat the UAE 33-0 in the first 7-a-side friendly match, held without crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The rugby players and few spectators rose as “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, blared over the grassy field and through rows of skyscrapers. The players shook hands, slapped backs and bumped fists over a thumping electronic beat.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin beamed onto the field with a dramatic speech about friendship.

“This is insane, insane,” said Israeli player Ori Abutbul, shaking his head in disbelief. “I have no words when people ask me how I feel.”

Already, sport has become key to new Israeli-Emirati ties. Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, purchased a 50% stake in Beitar Jerusalem, a professional soccer team in Israel. Reports questioning the sheikh’s finances have since put the deal on hold.

On the field Friday, Emirati team captain Younes al-Blooshi said he didn’t want to talk about the region’s political intrigues and rivalries. He expressed relief, however, that certain old rifts were beginning to heal.

Earlier this year, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries announced the end to a yearslong boycott of Qatar.

Throughout the bitter dispute, the UAE rugby team played in Qatar, but “it was pretty difficult,” al-Blooshi acknowledged, declining to elaborate.

“Thankfully, things are all clear now,” he said, noting the team would be flying direct to Doha in May, a first since 2017 when the boycott closed borders.

Israel, meanwhile, will return to competing against European countries, with the 2021 European Rugby Championship Cup beginning next month.