Over Passover I did something that was unthinkable before last September’s signing at the White House of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
I took a direct flight of just under three hours through Saudi Arabian airspace from Israel to the UAE on a Dubai-owned airline as an Israeli citizen to celebrate the holiday with the Jewish community there.
I could have entered Dubai visa-free as an American citizen, but I wanted to walk through passport control at Dubai International Airport as an Israeli citizen (I made Aliyah a little over a year ago).
The UAE and Israel previously had agreed to exempt visas for visiting Israelis and for Emiratis visiting Israel but the Gulf nation delayed implementation of the policy until July 1 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Israel has not opened the skies to foreign visitors yet.
The preparation was intense for this brief trip of just a few days, but it was all worth it to be able to visit one of the most amazing places in the world. The jewel of the Emirates on the shores of the Persian/Arabian Gulf.
Besides securing a tourist visa after booking my flight on flydubai, I had to make an appointment within 72 hours of my flight for a PCR test that detects COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated with the two Pfizer-BioNTech shots and receiving my “green passport” vaccine certificate.
The PCR test was the first of four I was given. The next test was administered upon arrival at Dubai International Airport, but those results were not available for 24 hours and they did not check if I was vaccinated so my impression was that the system of coronavirus prevention is far from airtight.
I was sure that there would be a rapid test at the airport. However, there is the opportunity for a Covid-positive individual to spread the virus around the UAE before receiving the results from the airport test if they picked up the virus at some point after the pre-departure test.
The third PCR test was given the next day at the hotel before I had even received my results from the last test at the airport because my trip was so short. The final PCR test was administered when I returned to Israel at Ben Gurion Airport. That test also did not give rapid results again like Dubai, allowing for the potential spreading of the coronavirus by arriving passengers before receiving the results 24 hours later.
Boarding the flydubai Boeing 737-800 at Ben Gurion Airport the reality of the Abraham Accords started to set in for me. Here was an Arab airline with an Arabic-speaking cabin crew announcing our departure from Tel Aviv to Dubai like it was the most normal thing in the world.
I sat next to an Israeli Arab couple during the full flight, which from my observation was a mix of both Jewish and Arab Israelis. The Tel Aviv-Dubai route will be popular in the coming years not just with Jewish Israelis but also with Arab Israelis. It is natural for Arab Israelis to want to travel to the UAE given the similar language, culture and religion.
Flying east for the first time from Israel was a special experience. Instead of flying west over the Mediterranean as I am used to, we flew over the Dead Sea as we entered Jordanian airspace. On the return flight we flew over Jordan’s capital city of Amman.
Soon, we were past Jordan and flying through Saudi airspace, which is a big reason why this route will be very popular as the skies open after COVID-19. Without permission from the Saudis to use their airspace, the three-hour flight would take over eight hours, making it unsustainable.
Watching the Saudi Arabian desert stretch out over the horizon was a special experience. Soon we were flying over the Persian/Arabian Gulf and beginning our initial descent into Dubai as we passed over oil tankers stationed in the choppy Gulf waters.
Impressions of Dubai
Like Tel Aviv, Dubai is a thriving modern metropolis that was built up more recently and has turned into a global business and tech hub.
The spectacular skyline is the result of hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers who make up a significant percentage of the population with Emiratis in the minority. Many of these migrant workers are from Asia — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Human rights organizations have criticized the UAE for its treatment of foreign laborers.
The Dubai Metro is a world-class rapid transit system. Fast and frequent service with clean and modern stations and trains. Easy access from the airport to downtown and to other destinations. I stayed in the Deira neighborhood near the airport, so it was a quick four stops to my hotel.
Currently, two lines are operational with the third line under construction and more extensions proposed.
The metro system itself is amazing. The problem is when you exit the station. Dubai has bike share and electric scooters but is not walkable. Combine Los Angeles and Houston and you get Dubai. The city was made for the car and that is it. No thought was put into walking and biking other than some painted bike lanes.
I am hopeful that as Dubai continues to develop it will be made more pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly because the government of the UAE while traditional and conservative in many respects, is also forward-thinking when it comes to innovation and sustainability.
Dubai and the UAE want to be a world leader in the new green economy that takes the environment into consideration and what better to demonstrate their commitment to the environment than to transform Dubai into a showcase city for walkability and bikeability.
However, Dubai is nowhere near that yet and at this point you will need to take a bus or get a taxi after exiting the rapid transit station.
I did walk in Dubai but do not recommend it.
While there I visited tourist destinations, including the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, which is the world’s tallest building at a height of 829.8 meters (2,722 feet). I also visited Jumeirah Mosque and Jumeirah Beach as well as the Dubai Frame, an architectural landmark in Zabeel Park.
Passover with Jewish Council of the Emirates
Celebrating the second night Passover Seder with the Jewish community of Dubai was special. This was the first Pesach after the historic Abraham Accords normalized relations between Israel and the UAE.
Yehuda Sarna, chief rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, which is the official representative body of the Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates with headquarters in Dubai, led the Ashkenazi Seder.
Dr. Elie Abadie, who joined JCE as the new Senior Rabbi in Residence, led the Sephardic Seder.
It was an amazing experience being in the heart of the Arab world in Dubai for Passover with Jews from all over the world.
The night before my return flight to Israel I participated in a Passover event with local Emiratis where Rabbi Dr. Abadie explained the traditional Seder plate and symbolic foods.
We then got to schmooze with the Emiratis and get to know them better. Both us Jews and the Emiratis had many questions about our respective communities, and we were happy to answer them.
It felt like a new beginning of a warm friendship between Jews and Israelis and Arabs and Emiratis but also felt like the rekindling of an ancient relationship of “cousins” who were separated for thousands of years and are now finding our way through the darkness back into the light of a shared future of peace and prosperity for the peoples of the Middle East.