Back in 2016, I was excited for the Bahrain Women’s National team to compete in the Aphrodite Cup, an international football tournament held in Cyprus. Bahrain’s team, of which I was in charge, had previously participated in an earlier edition of the tournament. The competition would have offered great exposure for Arab women’s football by giving them an opportunity to play against European teams. Unfortunately, that excitement was short-lived when it fell on me to ultimately decline the invitation when it became clear that Israel would be fielding a team this time around.
The decision to pull out was taken jointly between Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), despite all of the organisers’ efforts to accommodate us by making suggestions to ensure the teams played in separate groups and stayed in different hotels. Such was the tension between the Arab states and Israel that participation in the same tournament was not even an option.
For the Gulf, a region that has traditionally refused to recognise the existence of the Jewish state, the news has generated mixed reactions among experts and public. However, with more Arab countries expected to follow suit and take diplomatic steps to normalise relations, sport can help the transition and strengthen ties.
Sport has long been used as a tool for nurturing international relations between states. A prime example is ping-pong diplomacy, which softened relations between the United States and China during the Cold War with the aid of table tennis. There is now an opportunity for sport to play a similar role when it comes to the newly formed Arab-Israeli agreements.
While the use of sport for community reconciliation between Israel and Palestine has been studied in the past, its application to other Arab countries has never been explored. Indeed, the mere thought of such a thing has been so unlikely that the Israeli Football Association was forced to switch continental affiliations from Asia to Europe in 1974 due to the refusal of many Muslim nations to play against them.
So could treaties between Gulf States be enhanced through sport? It’s possible, but not likely to be an easy task.
Today, Bahrain and Israel could participate together in the Aphrodite Cup, for example, but marketing such an endeavour would require an effective strategy to emphasise the positives and dispel criticism. Sporting events can also be used as a platform for brand promotion. Much in the same way as we see adverts for companies around the pitch in the Premier League, as well as shirt sponsorship, there is an opportunity for recognised Gulf brands (for example, Fly Emirates) to enter the Israeli market through sport and vice versa. It may seem surprising initially to see Visit Israel advertisements at a Gulf-based sporting event, but over time this could become the norm and as trade relations improve, businesses will be less hesitant to get involved in Arab-Israeli marketing.The Gulf region has hosted many international sporting events in recent years where teams from different countries participate at the youth and national levels in diverse sports. One way to reinforce ties with Israel could be by inviting Israeli teams and delegations to such events. In fact, the three football associations of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE have already begun marketing such an idea on their social media with a shared post displaying the countries’ football emblems under a banner that reads, “Football can unite us. Let’s play!”
Sport for development and peace
Sporting events can also be used to educate visiting delegations about the host countries and build positive experiences on the sidelines of competitions. Team excursions and sightseeing trips can help them learn more about the local culture. Again, this would need to be closely managed given the potential escalation that can come from sporting matches and animosities between teams. Take, as an example, the infamous soccer war that erupted between El Salvador and Honduras as a result of geopolitical tensions that were compounded by incidents during football matches.
Another, safer, strategy that could be used as an alternative to hosting entire team events would be to implement a coach and player exchange program in a similar way to the one the US uses in its sport diplomacy programs. Exchange programs are a great way to widen the network of athletes and coaching staff in a country and allow them to broaden their horizons through learning from international experts.
Inter-community programs aimed at integrating the young people of Israel and the Gulf states could also take place in third locations such as the US. Such programs could be used to bridge cultural and religious differences through the commonality of sport to build social bonds and linkages. Unlike coaches’ exchanges, the focus of this type of program would be on youth and community as opposed to the professional athletes and their coaching staff. They would include sporting events and team-building activities as well as skill development and leisure activities away from sport.
The historic announcement between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE offers an important opportunity to strengthen relations and bring the Middle Eastern states together. While sport may not offer the ultimate solution to solve the Middle East conflicts, it offers a complementary tool to develop ties between communities that have been separated by years of hostility. It could help them to come together towards a new era of peace.