Peer's denial puts Dubai's future at risk

Updated: February 15, 2009, 2:43 PM ET
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The top official in women's tennis reprimanded the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for blocking an Israeli player from a premier Dubai tournament, calling the decision to deny her a visa "regrettable."

But the absence of Shahar Peer could extend beyond the matches under way. The WTA Tour is planning to review its future in Dubai, and the UAE -- which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel -- could face a possible blow to its ambitions of becoming an international hub for big-ticket sports.

"Ms. Peer has earned the right to play in the tournament and it's regrettable that the UAE is denying her this right," WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said in a statement issued after the UAE's last-minute decision.

Peer, ranked 48th, had been scheduled to play Monday in the Dubai Tennis Championships, a joint ATP and WTA event which includes all the top 10 women's players.

"All the players support Shahar. We are all athletes and we stand for tennis," said Venus Williams. "The players have to be unified and support the Tour whichever direction they take on the issue."

Reigning French Open champion Ana Ivanovic said: "I really don't like sports to be mixed with politics."

Peer broke barriers last year in Qatar when she was the first Israeli to play in a WTA Tour tournament in the Persian Gulf. But the UAE -- locked in a rivalry with Qatar to host major sports events -- could face setbacks if the WTA and other federations grow skittish of planning events with the prospect of Israeli athletes being blocked.

Last month, Peer was the focus of protests in New Zealand over Israel's recent three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas militants. She was provided extra security at the ASB Classic tournament there.

Tensions have been high between Israel and Arab countries since the assault, in which about 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

Emirates officials did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails for comment. A brief statement by the Dubai Tennis Championships organizers said Peer was notified of the visa rejection on Saturday and "therefore did not travel to Dubai" after finishing a tournament in Thailand.

The UAE has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but Israelis with dual citizenship have entered the country for international sporting and business events using second-country passports. On some occasions, Israeli passport holders have been allowed entry for meetings held by the United Nations or other international agencies.

It was not clear whether Peer was traveling on an Israeli passport.

Peer's brother and spokesman, Shlomi Peer, said the 21-year-old player applied for a visa months in advance and was assured by tournament organizers that she would be allowed entry.

Scott said the current tournament will proceed, but WTA tour officials will "review appropriate future actions with regard to the future of the Dubai tournament."

Peer was expected to return to Israel later Sunday. She could not be reached for comment.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press