Old vs New, Arab vs Jew, in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates is a country of dichotomies.

Old versus new, traditional versus modern, and rich versus poor are the contrasts that stand out on arrival. There are visual distinctions in the architecture, as you see short mud-brick buildings in the desert, compared to soaring skyscrapers in a modern downtown core, or the white, flowing kandura robes worn by Emirati men, versus the black counterpart worn by women.

The country’s approach to energy production is now oil versus renewables. Their place in the world is oriented East versus West. Their population is one of nationals versus a significant number of expats, and the climate differs tremendously hot versus cold, whether outside or in one of the numerous extravagant malls.

From November 12 to 21, I was in the UAE as a member of a delegation hosted by the UAE Embassy in Washington D.C. with the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the flagship program of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), the representative body of Jewish communities in 100 countries worldwide.

In August 2020, Israel and the UAE announced that they had entered into a comprehensive peace agreement, which included normalization of ties between them. Cooperation would be sought in the realms of security, technology, the environment, and diplomacy. It was the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country since 1994’s peace with Jordan, and it was an agreement widely embraced by the international Jewish community.

In the year since the peace agreement was signed, relations between the two countries have flourished. The UAE is seeking to invest in Israel, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis have flocked to the UAE amid a pandemic to see the sites and experience Emirati hospitality. Indeed, we heard plenty of Hebrew on the streets in Dubai. There have been exchanges of trade missions, security coordination, ambassadors, and an optimistic outlook that has survived what many thought would be a deterioration during the May 2021 conflict between Israel and the terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza.

On the ground in the UAE, the effects of the peace agreement are immediately felt. As a member of a visibly Jewish delegation, we were received with greetings of “shalom!” in the narrow alleyways of marketplaces, on the streets outside the Burj Khalifa, and in the corridors of power. Government officials told us that they placed immense weight on the Abraham Accords and believed that despite the risks that their government took, that there would be additional signatories in the region soon. They believe that their steps towards peace would inform the future of the region, and it was said with compassion.

This highlighted another dichotomy. Not only that of tolerance versus intolerance, or Arab versus Jew, but that of tragedy versus blessing. The warmth with which we were embraced by the Emirati community highlighted to me the utter tragedy that is the Arab-Israeli or Arab-Jewish conflict. Based on age-old illusions, prejudices and preconceived notions, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a tragedy that could have been avoided. There is nothing innate or natural about the conflict, as it is instead a tragedy between brothers, two peoples of similar lineage, born of the Middle East. Jews and Arabs should not find themselves in conflict. The hug with which the Emiratis now approaches Israel and the Jewish community shows how different the past could have been, and how different the future may be.

One government official we met with told us that the Abraham Accords were embraced by his people because “we have no reason to hate you.” This simple statement struck me, since so much of the historical animosity of the Arab world to Israel has been framed as, “we have no reason to love you.” Hatred versus love can have an enormous impact not only on the pragmatism of a peace or an outlook, but on the way that the same is perceived by the parties. This statement itself, to me, highlighted the tragedy of Israeli-Arab history, and what it could have been.

 After a week of meeting with local Emirati officials, being spoiled with their generosity and hospitality, and meeting with young Emirati diplomats who would likely one day guide the diplomatic stance of their country, we spent some time with the nascent Jewish community of Dubai. Once underground, the community has emerged, practicing their religion publicly and proudly in a place where they are seemingly embraced.

On Friday evening, we attended shabbat services with the local Jewish community, the Jewish Council of the Emirates, in their makeshift synagogue held in a hotel on the Palm Jumeirah (the immense man-made palm island abutting Dubai).

As we neared the close of services, we recited words that took on new meaning in that stark setting: oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol Yisrael: He who makes peace in His high places, may He bring peace upon us and upon all Israel.

Said three times daily while praying, this sentiment for peace has taken on a generic meaning. Recited in Dubai however, in the wake of the immense hospitality resulting from the Abraham Accords, these words took on a new meaning. Chanted in a place where real risks have been taken for peace, to improve the lives of others, to show the world that brotherhood and peaceful relations can still be forged, and to have such efforts undertaken with the best of intentions, brought significant relevance to an otherwise innocuous prayer.

Peace is possible, and stalemates considered static can indeed bend. We must look past the tragedy of the past and see the blessings of the future as motivation to seek peace and pursue it, at any cost.

About the Author
Adam Hummel is a lawyer specializing in immigration and estates law in Toronto, Canada. He is an active member of Toronto's Jewish community, and a member of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps of the World Jewish Congress. He writes regularly for his Substack, "Catch: Jewish Canadian Ideas."
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