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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AFP) – An Israeli cycling team raced through Dubai on Sunday, taking part in the UAE Tour for the first time in the latest overture between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations.
Gulf Arab nations have made a number of recent moves hinting at warmer ties with the Jewish state, with Israeli athletes and officials increasingly allowed to visit.
The UAE Tour, in its second year, is the sole WorldTour-level race in the Middle East. As a WorldTeam, Israel Start-Up Nation gets automatic entry into every WorldTour race in the calendar, so their attendance in the UAE is in that regard somewhat unsurprising. Nonetheless, team statements suggested that they were aware of the political significance of the moment and that they were approaching the race with a spirit of diplomacy.
“The participation in this race by our Israeli team in a Middle Eastern nation is emblematic of how cycling can be a force for diplomatic openness and progress,” team co-owner Sylvan Adams said. “It’s a historic occasion that an Israeli team will be racing in an Arab country – the first time ever – and we hope to make a diplomatic statement that Israel is a normal country, and normalise relations.”
— Israel Start-Up Nation / Israel Cycling Academy (@YallaIsraelSUN) February 23, 2020
Like all Arab countries, except for Jordan and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates has no official relations with Israel. But Israel Start-Up Nation’s riders, with their country’s name emblazoned on their blue and white jerseys, posed on-stage at the team presentation the day before the week-long race kicked off in Dubai.
“I’m very excited, it’s a nice country. We come here with a good team,” Israeli cyclist Omer Goldstein told AFP ahead of the race.
“It’s special that I’ve arrived here because normally Israelis cannot (come) to this country.”
“[Basically] we’re building up normalised relations from the ground, up on a people-to-people basis – so when the politicians get ready to sign our grand peace deal we will already have had normalised relations for quite a while, and we will have a warm peace,” Adams expressed in a team video. “Rather than doing it from the top down, we will do it from the bottom up, and I think we are creating the conditions for this to be possible.”
The team said they were surprised by the warm reception they received in the UAE, where expatriates make up about 90 percent of the population.
“After the initial shock to see the Israel Start-Up Nation logo, some of them waved with friendly smiles and even asked for selfies,” the team said after a visit to a Dubai cycling park.
Israel has been quietly moving closer to some Gulf Arab countries on the basis of shared security interests and a common rival — Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited Oman in 2018, frequently voices confidence that a decades-old Arab boycott — over treatment of the Palestinians and occupation of Arab lands — is thawing.
Since then there have been other milestones in Israeli relations with the Gulf nations.
Israeli Sports Minister Miri Regev toured the UAE’s famed Sheikh Zayed mosque, Israel’s communications minister delivered a speech in Dubai, and the Israeli national anthem was played at a judo competition in Abu Dhabi.
As for the UAE Tour, the Israel Start-Up Nation riders were reportedly warmly welcomed at the airport, and have been given extra security protection for the duration of the race. French rider Rudy Barbier, meanwhile, got the team’s campaign off to a decent start with third place on the opening stage.