Doha's Worst Nightmare? |

Why the Israeli Flag May Be Flying in Qatar This Fall

The emirate’s ‘sports diplomacy’ strategy faces its biggest test in October when it hosts gymnastics’ world championships – with several Israeli competitors seen as real medal prospects

Michael Dempster
Michael Dempster
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Israel's Andrey Medvedev competing in the men's vault final at the artistic gymnastics' European Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, August 2018.
Israel's Andrey Medvedev competing in the men's vault final at the artistic gymnastics' European Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, August 2018.Credit: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS
Michael Dempster
Michael Dempster

Israel’s top gymnasts will get a crash course in geopolitics this fall when they participate in their sport’s world championships in Doha, Qatar. It’s the first time the event has been hosted in the Middle East in its 115-year history, which just happens to coincide with the ascent of the Israeli team.

Observers say a trio of Israelis – Artem Dolgopyat, Andrey Medvedev and Alexander Shatilov – have a real shot at winning medals.

But this puts the event’s Qatari hosts in a political bind: A medal of any color would necessitate a very public and unprecedented display of the Israeli flag on Qatari soil. A gold, meanwhile, would mean that the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” should be played.

Will Qatar renege on its obligation as host to honor the national identity of an event’s victor? Or glorify Zionist symbols and risk enraging the Arab street?

This is not the first time an Arab state has faced such a dilemma. Last year, for example, the United Arab Emirates shunned public displays of Israeli emblems at a major international judo competition held in Abu Dhabi. And Saudi Arabia refused to issue visas to Israeli chess players for a tournament in Riyadh, despite reported pressure from the United States to do so.

Cyclists competing in the Tour of Qatar, February 2014.Credit: REUTERS

Both countries seemingly perceived their public acknowledgement of Israel as a net loss.

Qatar, meanwhile, is holding a dizzying number of international sports tournaments in the run-up to soccer’s FIFA World Cup in 2022 – the crown jewel of its soft power strategy to be seen as a regional leader.

Repeatedly organizing events of this magnitude is not cheap and Qatar, with only a modest sporting culture of its own, often struggles to fill seats. But experts say the natural gas-rich emirate is looking for another kind of return on its investment.

Qatar can use sport to present itself as the moderate face of a troubled region, the argument goes – thus distinguishing its geopolitical brand from rival monarchies that are snubbing it.

“Sporting events allow Qatar to connect with countries beyond the Gulf and the Arab world,” says Sigurd Neubauer, a Middle East analyst based in Washington. “They demonstrate that Qatar is not isolated by the international community. And Israel is a member of that international community.”

The Gulf has become less neighborly in the past year, after a host of Muslim countries, led by Saudi Arabia, severed diplomatic ties with Doha, accusing it of support for Islamist militants and Iran.

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, sees the seeming cozying-up to Israel through sport as a possible net gain for Qatar.

Alexander Shatilov of Israel performing on the floor exercise during the men's artistic gymnastics finals at the European Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, August 2018.Credit: Darko Bandic/AP

“When Qatar is in the midst of this crisis with its neighbors, being open to Israelis can earn it a lot of points with the American [Trump] administration. The fact that it can host an Israeli delegation but the Saudis won’t – who’s more tolerant, who’s more liberal?” he asks.

Balancing act

There is a precedent for Israeli athletes competing in Qatar, though not at the level of public scrutiny that is set to accompany the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships (from October 25 to November 3).

Doha hosted the World School Championship handball tournament in February, where a team from Holon surprised observers by winning the bronze medal. The event’s organizers walked a fine line with Qataris by allowing an Israeli team to participate at all, and their public treatment of the Israelis was handled cautiously, according to the Israeli team’s coach, Nisim Falach.

“Initially, they didn’t put our games in the main hall. They wanted to hide Israel’s participation. So when we kept winning over and over, and advancing in the tournament, they were in shock,” recounted Falach. “When we eventually won against Turkey, our game was in the main arena and it was broadcast on Qatari television.”

A number of Qataris took to social media to voice their disapproval of this apparent normalizing of relations with Israel. According to Falach, there were also protests in the streets of Doha – surprising given the emirate’s tight restrictions on freedom of speech.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces Qatar to host the 2022 soccer World Cup in Zurich, Switzerland, Dec.2, 2010Credit: Michael Probst / AP

Since it was a high school tournament, the medal ceremony did not involve the display of national symbols for any team – though Falach notes there was still a chorus of boos as his team took to the podium.

If any Israeli gymnasts win medals in Doha this fall, the sport’s governing body, the International Gymnastics Federation, assures that Qatar will conduct the ceremony as it would for any other country. Qatar’s compliance may be driven more by fear of consequence than camaraderie – neighbor UAE just reversed course, agreeing to display Israeli insignia at an upcoming judo tournament after that sport’s international body threatened to yank Abu Dhabi’s hosting rights.

Whatever the motivation, this could prove to be a historic acknowledgement of Israel by Qatar and will put additional pressure on the Israeli gymnasts in what is already a high-stakes event.

It will also doubtless provoke the ire of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, as well as other anti-normalization factions throughout the world.

Israeli officials sought to minimize pre-event media coverage of the handball tournament, possibly out of fear of security threats if the athletes’ participation was known in advance.

And a similarly hush-hush attitude appears to have been adopted in the lead-up to the gymnastics championship: Neither the Qatari Olympic Committee nor the Israeli Gymnastics Federation responded to requests for comment for this article.

The federations’ hopes of keeping things under the radar are probably futile, given that Qatar was announced as the event’s host in 2011 and Israeli gymnasts have regularly been winning medals in the intervening years.

Israel's Artem Dolgopyat competing on the floor exercise during the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Montreal, Canada, October 2017.Credit: Minas Panagiotakis / GETTY IMAGE

Eyes on Gaza

But no matter how competitive the Israeli athletes are, their ultimate participation appears to be contingent on factors outside of their control.

Anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world tends to spike during Israel’s skirmishes with Hamas, and 2018 has been anything but calm in the Gaza Strip. The situation is comparatively quiet at the moment, but Falach warned that the Israeli gymnasts should be prepared to throw away a year’s worth of hard training and watch the event on TV if events change.

“Leading up to our handball tournament, it was clear that if there were problems in Gaza, there was no chance we’d be able to compete in Qatar. Luckily, the tournament was before all the recent problems with Gaza intensified,” he said, referring to the March of Return protests that began on the Gaza border at the end of March, peaking with some 60 Palestinian deaths on May 14 when the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.

A worst-case scenario for both Qatari officials and Israeli gymnasts would be a spike in Gaza violence during the tournament itself – a confluence of events that Saudi Arabia could exploit to augment criticism of Qatar in anti-Israel quarters.

“The sword cuts both ways. To the West, the publicity Qatar gets from hosting Israeli athletes plays well. But it can play very poorly with Hamas, Iran, and with more radical elements in Qatari society and in the Gulf in general,” said Guzansky.

“Qatar can always say, ‘It’s an international event: It’s not that we want to host the Israelis, but we’re part of the international community,’” he noted. “But it would be much harder for Qatar to do that in the event of a conflict escalation. How will they maneuver that? What will they say?”

And what if everything rolls the Israeli gymnasts’ way: The Gaza border remains relatively quiet and the athletes end up on the podium? Qatar may actually view this seemingly problematic scenario as more of an opportunity than an obstacle, Neubauer believes.

“Qatari citizens, like any other Arabs, are squarely sympathetic to the Palestinians. But they also have a clear understanding that the current existential threat to Qatar is from its own neighbors, not Israelis,” he said. “The question is, how does Qatar build on that realization? Sporting diplomacy could be a good way to test each other out.”

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