Athletes: Boycott Dubai Events

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 25, 2009
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At the end of the 1960s, Dubai was an unknown speck on the Persian Gulf with a population of 58,000 and big dreams. Led by the seemingly unrealistic vision of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, the constitutional monarch used an influx of cash borrowed from Kuwait and the discovery of oil on its doorstep to turn the tiny emirate into a playground for the rich and famous, and provide windfall profits for business and family members.

Flush with an ever-growing pile of cash, Dubai rushed to build ports, private islands, shopping malls and even an 80-story spinning skyscraper, offering drive-in elevators and front-door parking that has 1,100 individuals ready to pony up $3 million to $30 million for the privilege of looking down on the other 1.2 million residents.

The downside to this explosive growth has been, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the creation of state-sponsored poverty and abuse that has forced its mainly migrant work force to live in abject poverty, barely separated from those flying in to shop, purchase sex or to make millions on its premier tennis courts and exclusive golf courses.

The tiny kingdom is trying to establish itself as a premier international sports city. Dubai currently plays host to world-class tennis, golf, sailing, horse racing, rugby, cricket, marathon and soccer, and is using sport as a way to sell its fairy tale community to wealthy visitors and investors, who have little concern for what goes on outside of their protected enclaves of luxury and exclusion.

With such disconnect, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when the government refused a visa for Shahar Peer, an Israeli tennis player, to compete in the $2 million Barclay’s Dubai Tennis Championships. The government of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, who doubles as the prime minister of United Arab Emirates, said the refusal to allow the woman to compete was a simple matter of security and not based on any anti-Semitic sentiments.

Like most Arab nations, UAE does not have relations with Israel and hasn’t exactly flung open the doors to those hailing from the east coast of the Mediterranean.

Officials said they were concerned that anti-Israeli demonstrators would create a dangerous situation for the athletes. Israel’s recent military action in Gaza has led to widespread anger in Arab and Muslim communities, and Dubai seems to be unable, or unwilling, to handle such dissidence, even though monarchies are rarely hindered by rules demanding governmental restraint.

Afshin Molavi, in the January 2007 issue of National Geographic, quotes Sheikh Mohammed in discussions about the religious and political peace of the city: “I don’t know who’s a Sunni and who’s a Shia, and I don’t care. If you work hard, if you don’t bother your neighbor, then there is a place for you in Dubai.”

As long as you’re not Jewish. Dubai has softened its stance in the face of tough-as-butter comments from Women’s Tennis Association CEO Larry Scott and, more importantly, after the Tennis Channel decided not to air the tournament and the Wall Street Journal European edition removed its sponsorship of the event. The nation of saints has given “special permission” for Andy Ram, a male Israeli doubles player, to take part in the mens tournament, and Scott says he has been assured that the UAE would provide a “special permit” for any athlete wishing to compete in tournaments they qualify for.

Regardless of the decisions of corporations and governing bodies, this is a protest that needs to come from athletes. And it goes far beyond this one tournament.

All sporting events in Dubai must be boycotted until the emi-rate offers more than lip service. No athlete, in good conscience, can claim concern while cashing in on policies based on discrimination and the labors of immigrant workers who, according to HRW, earn just 8 percent of the monthly per capita income in the UAE.

Reuters reported that Serena Williams said, “In the day and age like this everyone bleeds red blood and everyone to me (should have) an equal opportunity.” She’s right. But her comments would have meant a lot more coming during a press conference explaining why she removed herself from the tournament instead of at a quick presser between paydays.

“Behind the glittering skyscrapers lies a late-night world of fleabag hotels and prostitutes, Indian and Russian mobsters, money launderers and smugglers of everything from guns and diamonds to human beings,” some at very young ages, says National Geographic.

Astand by athletes against such practices will do nothing to hamper Dubai’s unprecedented growth or change labor policy, but refusing to participate until its segregationist policies are eliminated is one way to ensure that Peer, and others, will not be victims of state-sponsored discrimination.

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