A team of Israelis who participated in a recent global video game competition in Saudi Arabia said Monday that they were treated like royalty and blended right in with the other international players meeting in the Gulf kingdom.
The FIFA-sponsored e-football event came as U.S.-brokered talks are underway in an effort to forge a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The team, which consisted of three gamers, their coach and their manager, entered Riyadh via a connecting flight in Dubai using their Israeli passports and were provided with security detail 24/7 during their week-and-a-half visit last month, team manager Zvika Kosman said.
“It was very interesting to be in a country which we have no official relations with but within a minute you get used to it and it seems like any other place in the world,” Kosman told JNS.
He said the team was given VIP treatment from the moment they landed at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport until their departure. Police whisked them to a side office to have their Israeli passports scanned on both arrival and departure, bypassing local airport officials, Kosman added.
“The truth is I felt like a king,” Naseem Eissat, 20, one of the players, said a telephone interview. “We were hosted in the best possible way. I felt completely comfortable and at ease.”
Teammate Roee Feldman, 21, said, “We didn’t know what to expect because it was our first time in Saudi Arabia, but I can say that they treated us in the best possible way and made us feel the best in the world. It was a pleasure to see the way the local population reacted to our visit.”
The team members’ families back in Israel were supportive of their trip, albeit some were concerned over the inaugural visit to Saudi Arabia, Kosman said. During their stay, members of the delegations regularly chatted with their families over WhatsApp.
The annual FIFAe World Cup sees players compete in the latest version of the immensely popular soccer video game.
The team members, who knew their fellow participants from previous games, wore uniforms with “Israel” written on them in English, and the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” was played at the opening ceremony in accordance with FIFA regulations.
All the team members voiced the hope that the two countries will reach a normalization agreement this year and that the squad from Israel will be able to travel to the kingdom like any other foreign team.
“We’ll make do with a downgrade in our visit,” Kosman quipped.