In the heart of the Middle East, where the echoes of conflict reverberate through the air, there lies a silent but powerful undercurrent of hope. This is a story not just of nations divided by war, but of people united by a vision. A vision where the unyielding spirit of sports lights a path through the darkness, offering glimpses of a harmonious future even as the region navigates the turbulent waters of strife and uncertainty.”
In August 2023, leading up to these challenging times, I was invited to the first Middle East Peace and Sport Forum in Saudi Arabia, organized by Peace and Sport and supported by Prince Albert of Monaco. Hosted by Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Sport, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al Faisal, the forum aimed to bring Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 to life, focusing on gender equality in sports, youth empowerment, and the cultural impact of sporting events in the Middle East.
The hopeful atmosphere at the time was abruptly challenged on October 7 by the devastating attack by Hamas, resulting in the loss of 1,200 Israeli lives, 240 kidnapped civilians, and plunging the region in a possible full-blown Middle Eastern war with many Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese lives lost. This tragedy underscored the urgency and importance of initiatives like the Peace and Sport Forum.
Setting the Stage: Historic Initiatives for Peace and Sport
The journey to this pivotal forum was paved by several historic events in Israel, fostering peace through sport. In 2014, the Middle East Peace Run from Beirut to Jerusalem, led by Pat Farmer, united athletes from Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories in a remarkable 20-day, 2 marathons a day ultramarathon. The 2018 International Martial Arts Festival in Israel brought together instructors from Iran, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Jordan, and Egypt, showcasing sports as a bridge between cultures.
In 2019, the Gaza-Israel peace bike ride illustrated cooperation with 80 Israelis and 50 Gazans participating in a symbolic ride alongside Kibbutz Beeri and in Gaza city, ending with an uplifting Skype call.
That same year, on the International Day of Peace and Sport, 400 Arab and Jewish youths from 10 sports and 13 organizations collaborated, marking a historic moment of unity.
A Surge in Political Momentum
Mid-2023 saw a surge in political momentum between Israel and Saudi Arabia, highlighted by the first-ever visits from Israeli Ministers of Tourism and Communications. This progress was further supported by letters from Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, several ambassadors, and ALLMEP, – the largest and fastest-growing network of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders, all endorsing our participation in the Riyadh forum. By October 6, Israel’s minister of Sport was considering attending the event. The mood and momentum towards peace with Saudi Arabia became a sprint to the finishing line.
A Diverse Delegation: Unity in Diversity
Our delegation embodied the Middle East’s diversity, including Manar, a Palestinian peace activist who organized the first Gaza-Israel bike ride, and Sam, a Lebanese martial arts master breaking down stereotypes. The group also included Israeli Bedouins, an Egyptian diplomat, and Israelis with various dual nationalities, each contributing to the mosaic of peace.
The Forum’s Resilient Message
Despite these circumstances, the forum proceeded, highlighting Saudi Arabia’s commitment to sports and peace. Data about Saudi Vision 2030 showed a population of 70% under 35 years old with a 300% increase in sport participation since 2015 and a 30% increase in women participating in sports.
Discussions revolved around human dignity, social cohesion, tolerance, and sports as tools for emotional and physical well-being. Prominent figures, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal and Prince Albert of Monaco, emphasized sports as a platform for dialogue and understanding.
The Vision of Abraham Games
Central to our mission to attend the forum was the promotion of the Vision of Abraham Games, a multi-sports youth game with 1000 athletes from the Abraham Accord countries with the inaugural games hosted in Abu Dhabi. The games would include cultural events to promote mutual understanding and friendship and would be held every two years, with future games in Israel, the U.S. Morocco, Bahrain, and potentially Saudi Arabia.
Sports for Social Change: A Growing Coalition
Another goal was to expose our Sports for Social Change coalition in the region, which presently includes 28 organizations, 15 different sports, and 110,000 youth, focusing on women empowerment, coexistence, disabilities, and at-risk youth. The coalition has evolved, using sports as a medium for social impact and healing.
Looking Forward: Hope Amidst Challenges
The Peace and Sport Middle East Forum sessions ended successfully as planned on October 19. It was well attended by European and Arab diplomats, athletes, and NGOs. The elite athletes and speakers were both inspiring and future-looking.
No Israeli representative participated in person. However, from the safety of their bomb shelters, they attended online, making new personal contacts with those keen to help move the vision of promoting peace through sport in our region.
Today, we are not where we hoped we would be. However, perseverance and resilience can transform calamity into a catalyst for change. We saw this with the Covid pandemic that became the catalyst to form the Sport for Social Change Coalition in Israel forcing organizations to share knowledge and collaborate. The Israel-Hamas war compelled sports organizations to create therapeutic healing programs for traumatized youth.
The road to peace in the Middle East is an ultra-marathon with many unforeseen obstacles and tragedies along the way. For the moment, the extension of the Abraham Accords is on the waiting bench with the Saudis readying for the right timing so that the road- not- taken yet will eventually lead us to the finishing line of a brighter, more peaceful future in the Middle East.