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Youth and Sports in the Middle East (January 2022)

One of my Peace Corps buddies came up with the idea of building in Palestine a world-class soccer stadium and training center for youth in the Middle East. I’ve been trying to help him bring this intriguing idea to the attention of policymakers.

Nothing else seems to be working. Why not try reducing tension and building connections in the Middle East by galvanizing the interest in sports among young people. Imagine a new Olympic-class soccer stadium in Palestine in a complex that includes a Leadership Institute for youth from countries across the region.

Countless Palestinians and Israelis have died or seen their families destroyed over the past 72 years in the persistent conflict between the two sides. Numerous peace efforts have yielded temporary successes but never the lasting peace the people yearn for. The real and emotional damage from uninterrupted conflict has led many to believe that the animosity between the two sides is beyond repair. But dwelling on the negative limits our imagination and consequently our ability to at least mitigate conflict.

Palestine lacks the natural resources that have fueled economic progress in other Middle Eastern countries. Consequently, a brighter future lies in developing its human resources. Building a world class, youth-oriented sports complex can lift the Palestinian economy as well as the spirits of its people and thereby become a key step toward a more viable order. It would be a source of pride not only for the Palestinians but for people of all faiths in the region. In partnership with Israel, it’s the kind of feasible, win-win project required to build a sense of community across borders.

The main sport in this complex would be football (soccer), which has as many enthusiastic participants and fans in the Middle East as it does in the rest of the world. Alongside its 60,000-seat Olympic-class stadium would be a Youth Leadership Institute providing intensive one-year fellowships for young men and women from the region. It would be staffed by a first-rate faculty and promote the kind of dialogue needed to build a new foundation for regional stability. Engaging youth in discussions of opposing viewpoints is surely the smart way to build a better understanding of each other’s concerns and aspirations.

How can such a complex be built? It will require a sizable investment, but the cost will be far less than the monies spent if fighting and destruction continue.

The governments of Palestine and Israel would have to jointly lead the campaign to build the complex. This is not a new idea. During a visit to Jerusalem in October 2021, FIFA President Gianni Infantino suggested that Israel and Palestine could co-host the 2030 World Cup soccer tournament. Moreover, at the end of 2021 the Washington Post reported that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to “improve living conditions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank”.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries that have the most to gain from lowering tensions should need little persuasion to contribute funding to build the sports-youth training complex. It would be in the interest of both the United States and China to support the project. International institutions like the World Bank are logical investors. Leading philanthropists could be given naming rights for their donations. A global telethon featuring the world’s best entertainers and celebrities could bring substantial funding from millions of individual donations.

As much as 250 acres will be needed for the complex, entailing displacement and resettlement challenges to be resolved. A top-notch architectural and engineering (A&E) firm will have to work with all parties to sharpen the vision for the complex. Just as Dubai, Singapore and Sidney draw worldwide attention to their awe-inspiring architecture, the design of the complex should seek to do the same for Palestine. Importantly, the main stadium should include a retractable roof and be climate controlled to deal with global warming. Infrastructure to support the complex will have to be upgraded and expanded: electricity, highways, mass transit, communication networks, sewage treatment, and clean water. As a result, the stadium would be used for other purposes such as Premier League “friendlies” and concerts by global artists.

In addition to its grand stadium, the complex will include training fields, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a health and medical clinic, administrative offices, classrooms, dining facilities, and residential housing to accommodate as many as 300 visiting athletes and their coaches. The Youth Leadership Institute will need accommodations for 100-200 young women and men to study together, compete recreationally, and develop mutual respect and understanding. The faculty of the Institute will challenge them to think critically and solve problems pertinent to their lives. The personal relationships formed will foster progress in all aspects of life among people in the Middle East and diminish political tensions over the long haul.

The private sector can easily provide the funding required for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The regional stability emerging from this complex will fuel commercial expansion. It will ignite unprecedented economic growth in Palestine, creating large numbers of jobs over a wide range of occupations.

Who will get the ball rolling? It could be an opportunity for the Biden-Harris Administration as an example of “relentless diplomacy”. It could emerge from Israel’s recent initiative through the Abraham Accords, and from other bilateral initiatives to create mutually beneficial relationships among the longtime adversaries in the Middle East. The United Nations also could take the lead, showing that it has the ability to mitigate conflict in one of the world’s most troubled areas.

It will take a project of this kind to transform the negative energy that dominates the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis into a positive force. A big idea like this can be an incremental, cost-efficient, feasible step toward the long-term dream of peace in the Middle East. The entire world will benefit. There might not be a better moment. All it takes is a credible champion and a willingness to act.

3 January 2022

Timothy F. Sullivan

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (India,1965-1967)

Retired from the U.S. Labor Department

Phone: 703-655-1339

Address: 660 Willow Valley Square, M-503, Lancaster, PA 17602

Lex Rieffel

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (India, 1965-67)

Retired from the U.S. Treasury Department

Phone: 202-309-2478

Address: 1730B Q Street NW, Washington, DC 20009


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