Sports and Culture Minister Miri Regev arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Friday to accompany Israel’s national judo team at an international tournament where — for the first time in an Gulf country — they will be allowed to compete under their national flag.
Regev is scheduled to attend the opening ceremony for the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 on Saturday, where the Israeli national anthem will also be played for the team.
Pictures and videos shared to social media on Friday showed Regev, the coaches and team members singing and lighting Shabbat candles ahead of the two-day tournament.
Regev is the first Israeli minister to visit the UAE in an official capacity, as the countries have no official diplomatic relations.
צפו: קבלת שבת באבו דאבי
— ZioNLight (@ZioNLight1) October 26, 2018
Israeli athletes competing in international tournaments hosted by Arab countries have generally not been allowed to compete under their national flag, display national symbols on their uniforms or have their anthem played, despite protestations by Israel and international officials.
At last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, organizers refused to acknowledge the nationality of the Israeli athletes — a policy directed only at Israeli participants.
That included a ban on the display of identifying symbols, as well as a refusal to fly the Israeli flag and play the national anthem during ceremonies for Israel’s five medalists. The Israeli competitors instead competed under the flag of the International Judo Federation (IJF) due to the UAE’s non-recognition of Israel.
In July, the IJF stripped the UAE and Tunisia of hosting privileges for future international tournaments due to their failure to guarantee equal treatment of Israeli athletes.
Less than a month later, the federation announced that the UAE had reversed it ban on Israeli symbols, and guaranteed to the world body that all athletes would be able to compete under equal conditions.
The open participation of the Israeli athletes in an Arab-hosted tournament could also be seen as the latest sign of growing regional ties between Israel and Arab countries.
Earlier on Friday, Netanyahu returned from an unannounced visit to Oman where he met the Gulf state’s leader in the first visit of its kind in over 20 years.
The surprise visit and meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said was an important accomplishment for Netanyahu, who frequently boasts of warming contacts behind the scenes between Israel and Arab states.
The visit came at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos and followed “lengthy contacts between the two countries,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
Netanyahu has repeatedly stated in recent years that Israel has developed good relations with several Arab states, despite a lack of official ties. But he rarely publicizes these contacts or identifies his partners.
AP contributed to this report.