A member of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family has purchased half of a Jerusalem soccer team whose fanbase is notorious for its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan has bought 50 percent of the shares and will invest NIS 300 million ($92 million) in the Beitar Jerusalem team over the next decade, according to the soccer club.
Beitar Jerusalem hailed the deal as “historic and exciting.” The partnership comes three months after Israel and the United Arab Emirates established diplomatic ties.
A statement on the soccer club’s official website quoted the UAE sheikh as referring to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a position not shared by the Gulf country’s leaders.
“I am moved to be a partner in such an esteemed club… and in such a city, the capital of Israel and one of the holiest cities in the world,” said bin Khalifa. “I heard a lot about the changes the club is undergoing and how it’s being managed, and I am happy to take part in that.”
Beitar, one of Israel’s top soccer teams, is known for its long history of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment, and is the only club in the Israeli league that has never had an Arab Muslim player. Officials on the team have indicated in the past that it is unofficial policy.
Moshe Hogeg, a high-tech entrepreneur, said after buying the team in 2018 that he hoped to put it on a “new path” and that religion would no longer be a factor in the club’s personnel decisions. The team has been trying to change its image in recent years and in 2017 it received an award from President Reuven Rivlin for its efforts to tackle racism and for significantly reducing the number of racist chants at its games.
Bin Khalifa said his investment represented “the fruits of peace and brotherhood between the nations” and said the move would further “bring people together through sport.”
“Together, we will put together a team that will strive the highest and go the furthest possible… Yalla [go], Beitar!” he added.
Many of Beitar Jerusalem’s most extreme fans are part of the far-right La Familia fan group.
In 2016, 19 members of the group were charged with attempted murder, including of rival supporters.
In October, leading Arab-Israeli politician Ayman Odeh demanded a “racist” song by La Familia members insulting the Prophet Muhammed posted on YouTube be removed. The social media giant later took down the clip from its platform. Sung by La Familia fans, the Hebrew-language song insults the prophet, questioning his status and the origins of his mother.
AFP contributed to this report.