RAMALLAH — Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team arrived in the West Bank on Sunday, on a groundbreaking visit to play against the Palestinian national team on Tuesday.
The game will be played in the West Bank town of Al-Ram, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, and marks a change in policy for the Gulf state, which has previously only played against Palestinians in third countries.
Four years ago a similar game was ultimately played in Jordan after pressure on the Saudis not to go to the Israeli-held territory.
Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the West Bank, where the Palestinian national team plays, as it obliged them to apply for Israeli entry permits, implying normalization of relations.
But lately clubs or national teams from Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all visited. Others, including Egypt and Lebanon, still refuse.
Saudi Arabia does not have official diplomatic relations with the Jewish state but the two countries are widely believed to have discreet contacts over Iran, their common enemy.
The team visit had been seen by some as breaching a decades-long Arab boycott of the Jewish state over its treatment of the Palestinians.
Palestinian public opinion is divided, with some seeing it as a boost for Palestinian soccer while others interpret it as signs of an unwelcome thaw between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Nada Hussein, coordinator of the Palestinian National Committee for the Boycott of Israel, said she did not object.
“The visit of the Saudi squad does not go against the criteria of the boycott… provided that there is no connection during the visit with the state of occupation [Israel] or its institutions,” she told AFP.
Al-Ram Stadium is recognized by FIFA.
“You proved to the world that a visit to a prisoner does not mean normalization with the jailer,” Ramallah governor Laila Ghannam said at a welcoming ceremony.
“We are very happy about your presence,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in remarks to the Saudi Football Federation chief and his delegation. “We are proud of this visit, and we feel it embodies the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Palestine.”
“Your arrival delights the Palestinian people,” the official Palestinian news agency WAFA quoted him as saying.
The match is the first for the Saudi team in the playoffs for the Asian zone of the 2022 World Cup.