Dubai (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.
“Israel Start-Up Nation will make history on Sunday by competing in the UAE Tour, becoming the first Israeli team to participate in the Middle East’s top cycling race,” the team said in a statement.
“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,” its co-owner Sylvan Adams said.
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 members, with their country’s name emblazoned on their blue and white shirts, posed on stage 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… I invite all the Israelis to this country.”
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 Startup 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 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.