Jordanian teenager Abdullah Shelbayh stepped on centre court to play a tennis match in Metz, France on Wednesday night wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh – also known as the hatta – in solidarity with the people of Gaza.
It was viewed by some as a simple gesture by the 19-year-old.
But it was a bold and meaningful message sent at a time when many Arab athletes are trying to navigate a climate of cancel culture, online backlash and potential sanctions for lending their support.
As the death toll continues to rise in Gaza, some Arab athletes have been using their platforms to raise awareness of the unfolding humanitarian crisis or to speak up against the violence.
But not everyone has found it easy to voice their opinions.
While many lauded Shelbayh for what he did on Wednesday, a few tweets on X, formerly Twitter, branded him a “terrorist” or called for the ATP to ban him for wearing a scarf.
When Egyptian swimmer Abdelrahman El Araby pulled off an impressive upset to take gold in the 50m butterfly at a World Cup event in Greece last month, he refused to celebrate his achievement and revealed he had been getting death threats since he shared some posts in support of Palestine on Instagram.
“People have been attacking me all week for supporting Palestine. My family goes to sleep not knowing if I’m going to wake up tomorrow, if somebody is going to break into my apartment. And they have to wonder every time I don’t pick up a call, is he just busy or is somebody trying to kill him?” said El Araby during his post-race interview. “My brothers and sisters are being killed in Palestine right now and I’m being threatened just because it’s a cause I’m standing for.”
As a result, the Israel Swimming Association sent a letter to the governing body, World Aquatics, urging them to investigate El Araby, who later posted a message on social media saying that nothing justifies the suffering of innocent people, irrespective of background.
“It is disheartening to witness a discrepancy in how individuals are allowed to express their sorrow and empathy,” wrote the swimmer. “Israeli athletes, like their Palestinian counterparts, should have the freedom to mourn the suffering of their own people without facing accusations or labels.”
When Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur first posted a message calling for peace in Palestine, the Israel Tennis Association (ITA) filed an official complaint against her.
The two-time Wimbledon finalist told The National she was “surprised” by the ITA’s move and reiterated her message of peace. Jabeur broke into tears on court after a victory at last week’s WTA Finals, saying it was “heartbreaking” to see innocent children dying every day and announced she would be donating a portion of her prize money to Palestinian aid.
As NBA coach Gregg Popovich told The National last week, talking about what’s happening in Gaza is important, because it keeps the problem at the forefront of the news, making it difficult for world leaders to ignore it.
And while star athletes are typically held to an incredibly high standard by fans, and demands for them to speak up are reasonable, it’s also understandable that some have been less vocal than others.
A tennis player, who is effectively an independent contractor, is in a far more flexible position compared to a footballer, for example, who is employed and is bound by the rules of their club, as well as the league to which it belongs.
Egypt and Liverpool footballer Mohamed Salah, the most prominent Arab athlete in world sport, was heavily criticised by his home fans for initially not posting anything about Palestine on social media. It was later revealed he had made a considerable donation to aid Gaza, before sharing a video online in which he called for the “massacres” to stop and said humanitarian aid must be allowed into Gaza immediately.
Even then, Salah received some backlash from those who felt his message was “too neutral” and should have been stronger.
Egypt and Arsenal’s Mohamed Elneny, who two years ago was urged by his club to consider “the wider implications” of a pro-Palestine post he made that upset one of the team’s sponsors, changed his profile picture on all his social media accounts last month to reflect an image of the Palestinian flag in front of Al Aqsa Mosque, opting for a more subtle approach instead of sharing a written message or a video.
The Premier League issued a statement saying the league “is shocked and saddened by the escalating crisis in Israel and Gaza, and strongly condemns the horrific and brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians”. A moment of silence was observed ahead of the fixtures held from October 21 to 23 “as a mark for all those affected”.
Still, it is clear football players in the Premier League haven’t felt too comfortable openly sharing their views on the conflict, given how limited the communication on the topic has been from the biggest Arab stars in the league. The consequences of saying something that can so easily be twisted into something else are just too great.
People have been quick to equate one’s horror over the thousands killed in Gaza to being pro-terror or antisemitic, so it’s understandable if a professional athlete with a large international audience chooses to avoid falling into that trap by staying silent instead.
But as Salah said in his video, “humanity must prevail”, and we should be able to live in a world where calling for peace wouldn’t get you in trouble.