Anyone looking for hard evidence that the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is real, and not some cold, technical deal, like Israel has with Egypt and Jordan, need look no further than — soccer.
On Aug. 13, US President Donald Trump made his dramatic announcement that he had brokered an agreement between Israel and the UAE. Less than a month later, i24News reported that an investor from the Abu Dhabi Development and Investment group, a concern with close ties to the Emirati royal family, approached Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg with an offer to partner with him in ownership of the controversial club. The Emirati investor also owns a stake in the British Manchester City FC.
According to the report, representatives of the investment group looked at several Israeli teams. These included Hapoel Tel Aviv, a team that invests in bringing Jews and Arabs together, and a number of mixed, Arab-Jewish teams. Another team suggested to them was Hapoel Beersheba, which has several Bedouin players. Nevertheless, the investor insisted that their primary interest was Beitar Jerusalem.
The choice is surprising, at least at first glance. Al-Monitor has reported on the harsh reaction last year to owner Hogeg’s efforts to recruit a Muslim player for the team. The problem is a group of overly zealous fans, known as La Familia. Apart from their very vocal passion for the team, they are also well known for their racism, and particularly their hatred of Arabs and Muslims. They have announced it publicly on numerous occasions. Sometimes members of the group show up at games in T-shirts with logos of the racist Kach movement. They have even raised banners with slogans such as, “Beitar Pure Forever.”
This blatant racism reached a climax in 2013, when the then-owner of the team, businessman Arkady Gaydamak, recruited two Chechen Muslim players — Dzhabrail Kadiyev and Zaur Sadayev — despite La Familia’s protests. The fan club cursed the players during training and games, set fire to the team’s offices and walked out when one of the players scored a goal for the team. Three months later, the two players broke down and left. Then, last year, Hogeg tried again, this time bringing in a player named Ali Mohamed.
Compounding these problems with Muslim players were violent clashes between Beitar fan and fans of the Israeli-Arab Bnei Sakhnin team. As a result, some of the games between the rival teams took place without any fans in the stands to avoid further clashes.
It now seems as if this is what drew the Emiratis to invest in the team: They believe that it represents the internal dispute within Israeli society over its attitude toward Muslims and Arabs.
According to sources, the Emirati investor conducted an in-depth investigation of the team. Israel’s public broadcaster Kan quoted the unnamed investor as saying, “I love the fact that Beitar’s fan base is so devoted and loyal to the team. Soon they will realize that people of the Emirates seek peace and coexistence. What they need to do is respect people, regardless of race or religion." The investor was also quoted as saying that the deal is indeed real, noting, "It is happening. We have already held several meetings on Zoom. Accountants and lawyers have been brought in to examine the financial and legal feasibility."
Apparently, even the racism of some fans of the “Yellow and Black” (the team’s colors) doesn’t bother the Abu Dhabi businessman. Israel’s Sports Channel quotes him as saying, “Fanaticism is rooted in ignorance and fear of the other. If there is a spirit of tolerance, we can create an atmosphere of pure friendship between us and others. Sports is an international language graced with the ability to promote tolerance and peace between nations and people.”
Yitzhak Megamadov of Jerusalem is a longtime fan of Beitar. He told Al-Monitor that he considers these new investors from the UAE to be a positive development, while trying to explain the attitude that some fans have toward Arabs. “First of all, it is surprising that they chose Beitar. Because of that choice, I tell our fans to open their hearts and minds and receive them with open arms. They are our cousins. They want real peace and solidarity. We have gotten used to knowing about Palestinian Arabs through terrorist attacks and war. … We need to educate ourselves and change our perspectives. Hopefully that will happen through these people from the UAE and the normalization treaty we signed with them.”
Hogeg has since received an official invitation to visit Abu Dhabi. He will be flying there Sept. 21, right after the Jewish New Year. Beitar announced in an official statement, “We are pleased to confirm that negotiations are underway between Beitar and a group of entrepreneurs from Abu Dhabi about a possible investment in the soccer club. This is our chance to turn Beitar Jerusalem into a leading soccer club in Israel and in the world, as well as a tangible symbol of the new ‘winds of peace’ blowing through the region. This fits well with the motto, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ which has guided the club over the last two years.”
Whether or not the deal goes through, the change in attitudes has already begun.