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The UAE Experience

Years ago I promised myself that I would not visit an Arab country, unless it had a relationship with Israel. I pretty much kept my promise, though I think that, in the seventies, I set one foot inside Lebanon at the Metula border fence.

I also visited three Non-Arab Muslim countries, Turkey, Iran (in 1974 flying El AL from Tel Aviv to Teheran at the time of the Shah) and two business trips to Indonesia.

Then in 2015 I went to Jordan, visiting Petra. It is well known that the general population in Jordan remains hostile to Israel, while there are relatively close relations between Israel’s and Jordan’s security establishments. As our Jordan guide told me at the time, 90 percent of the population wants the peace agreement with Israel to be abolished…… and then he added ‘thank G’d that we have a King’.

Last week we were in Dubai and had a very different experience. We saw Israeli flags flying at the Expo 2020 and we shared a Shabbat @ Chabad dinner with some 150 other Jews. In fact, visiting the UAE gave me a new perspective of the Arab world. There are at least four kosher restaurants and several hotels with a kosher kitchen.

While one should not talk politics or religion and for sure not commit a crime, the UAE is a tolerant and open country. The streets are clean and safe (except maybe for the many speeding Ferraris), and the country is impressively beautiful. In the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, there are signs all over, in Arabic and in English, promoting tolerance and respect for the other.

Being used to see Arab fanaticism and intolerance throughout the Middle East and all over the world, it was refreshing to experience an Arab country that is at the same time traditional, respectful of others and open to the world.

Of course it comes at a price. The UAE is not a democracy. It is one Sheik, one vote (or more like 7 Sheiks, 7 votes…). You can say whatever you want, unless you say something about the Sheik or Islam. Don’t commit a crime, or you will regret it. You are either born an Emirati or you will never become one. The 85 % of the population that are foreigners are at the mercy of their 3 year visa renewal, which is a great motivation to stick to the rules.

But it has made me think of our democracy. Of course here in the US, I can say anything I want about our politicians and I can vote. But my freedom of speech comes with guns and crime; antiquated infrastructure as well as with sometimes corrupt and mostly incompetent politicians. I am not so sure that my vote here makes a difference, when my choice is between an impulsive narcissist and a doddering has-been.

Spending eight days in Dubai makes me wonder whether I would trade my political freedom for a clean and well-oiled (pun intended) better life, even at the price of having keep some of my thoughts to myself.

About the Author
Born in the Netherlands, graduated from the Universite de Geneve and the Graduate Institute of International Studies, also in Geneva. Fluent in Dutch, French, English and Spanish, with some knowledge of German, as well as a bit of Ivrit. Spent my working career working in finance in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Geneva, Panama, Mexico and Miami. I am now semi-retired.
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