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What Emiratis are like: Insights from a Jew who lived among them

None of the Emiratis I was friends with were bothered by me being a Jew or a supporter of Israel. But others were...
The campus at the American University of Sharjah, the third largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE (Michael Bassin)
The campus at the American University of Sharjah, the third largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE (Michael Bassin)

Israelis and global Jewry are rightly excited about the new formal ties between the UAE and Israel. But once the embassies are built, daily flights booked, and business meetings set, I urge my fellow Israelis to approach the opportunities that come from peace with as much caution as elation.

Emirati society is unlike anything Israelis have ever engaged with before. If America is a melting pot and Israel a salad, the UAE is the grocery store where every food remains in its own aisle.

Unlike the US and Israel, the UAE is a nation of foreigners, where opportunities and status are largely dictated by the passport you hold.

At the top of the hierarchy are the Emiratis themselves, who are taken care of financially from the cradle to the grave in ways westerners can’t even imagine. Emiratis, despite being 12% of the population, only make up one-third of one percent of the workforce. Brits, Americans, and other Europeans dominate the top of the business sector, other Arabs and some Indians form most of the middle class, and south Asians and Filipinos do the menial labor and construction.

In this context, Emiratis are largely hidden in plain sight from mainstream society. You’ll see them in office buildings, restaurants, malls, and other public places. But the unwritten social rules of the UAE make striking up a conversation at random difficult, if not outright inappropriate.

Israeli tourists and businesspeople who excitedly flock to the UAE in the coming years may not get the chance to meet a single Emirati unless someone formally introduces them. That means getting a read on every day Emiratis’ actual perceptions of Israel and building meaningful ties on the ground with our new peace partners may be difficult. But it also means Emiratis will remain as much a mystery to most Israelis as they are to the rest of the people in the UAE.

I had the opportunity to live among Emiratis in 2006, two years before I immigrated to Israel, when I enrolled as an exchange student for a semester at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), an English language, American-style university in Sharjah, the third largest of the seven emirates comprising the UAE; an emirate with a particularly strict Islamic orientation, swimming at the beach required full body covering and drinking alcohol was strictly forbidden.

I briefly considered keeping my Jewish identity a secret, fearful how my Arab peers might react as the Second Lebanon War had just concluded. But I decided against it

I was one of six American exchange students at AUS and the only Jewish one. The rest of the student population was 25% Emirati, 10% Saudi, 10% Iranian and 10% Palestinian.

At the time, I was 20 years old and deeply passionate about the pursuit of peace between Israel and her neighbors. I chose to study in the UAE because I hoped it would give me the chance to connect with young Arab moderates with whom America and Israel could advance the vision of a peaceful, prosperous Middle East.

I briefly considered keeping my Jewish identity a secret, fearful how my Arab peers might react as the Second Lebanon War had just concluded. But I decided against it, wondering how I would build lasting bonds with people to whom I lied about the core of who I was.

Wanting to fit in

My first night in Sharjah, I wandered around my dorm building observing all the bearded men in identical white ankle-length robes. Very much wanting to fit in and completely unaware of any of the social customs of my new home, I went up to a tall traditionally dressed Emirati hanging out with some of his friends and asked him where I could get a robe like his.

He looked at me for a moment like I was speaking Chinese, as if no foreigner had ever asked to dress like him before. A smile quickly shone through and he and nine of his friends rushed me to his dorm room with overwhelming enthusiasm. In the dorm room, I quickly noticed a very expensive watch sitting on the dresser and keys to a Mercedes. It immediately became clear that their English was quite remedial and they probably weren’t going to initiate a highly intense religious or political discussion.

That night, these new friends of mine gave me my very own kandura, the white robe Emirati men wear, taught me how to bump noses as a sign of endearment, and cheered with delight every time I told them I loved the UAE. Despite living in a country surrounded by foreigners, they acted like I was the first outsider with whom they’d ever made a real connection.

I made friends with dozens of Emiratis that semester from all over the UAE, as well as their friends and families. They all treated me like gold. They frequently brought me to shooting ranges, treated me to movies and meals, and let me race their SUVs in the nearby sand dunes. Those who resided in Sharjah and neighboring Dubai would drive me to their homes on a whim to ride their pet camels and indulge in lavish five-course-meals prepared by their multiple Southeast Asian house servants.

Sometimes I wondered if I was a burden because every time I visited an Emirati’s home, all female relatives would totally disappear from sight. In their culture, at home, women must not be seen by men who are not relatives.

My Emirati friends insisted I wear my kandura when hanging out with them, especially when we’d go to the mall. Hanging out with me with my green eyes, eyebrow ring, and American English, they got a lot more attention than usual and they reveled in it to no end. They could barely contain their laughter as we strolled through the Mall of the Emirates, one of the largest malls in the world, seeing Indian Sikh shopkeepers stare blankly at my face, observing Emirati women walk by us to do a double take, and noticing European tourists take pictures of me from far away.

They cared for my soul

These Emiratis really cared for me and I cared for them. They said I was their brother and they treated me as one. Many would even introduce me to friends and strangers by giving me their last names.

They also cared about my soul. Emiratis are generally a very religious people when it comes to Islam. Even complaining about a guy named Muhammad who you happen to dislike isn’t acceptable because his name is Muhammad.

One Emirati even announced on CNN Arabic with me standing next to him as we were being interviewed that I was about to convert to Islam

To them, Islam is truth. No matter how outwardly tolerant they are of other religions and cultures, Islam will always be the faith others should be encouraged to come to. During Ramadan, I was given a copy of the Qur’an and a book with Muslim prayers. Knowing that I was studying the Qur’an, my Emirati friends alike could not foresee a scenario of me not becoming a Muslim when I finished reading it.

One Emirati even announced on CNN Arabic with me standing next to him as we were being interviewed that I was about to convert to Islam. When he eventually realized I was not going to become a Muslim, he looked at me as if he was about to cry because he genuinely worried about my salvation.

None of the Emiratis I was friends with were bothered by me being a Jew or a supporter of Israel. They’d ask me questions occasionally about Israel and Zionism. One friend from the Sharjah royal family announced his wish to become the UAE’s ambassador to Israel while he played the Alpha Blondie song “Jerusalem” in his car. I sincerely hope he’s in the running for the job.

These attitudes were in sharp contrast to the rest of the student body at AUS, who may have been more Americanized on the surface, but who were taught deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Israel beliefs. To most students in the university, who had also grown up in the UAE for the most part, I became unbreakably linked to the policies and politics of Israel, despite my lack of Israeli citizenship at the time. I was constantly thrust into the role of chief representative for America, Israel, and the Jews all wrapped into one. Many believed I was a spy.

But to the Emiratis, whose country had never fought a war with Israel or ever had a culture of deep-seated anti-Semitism, I was just Michael. Plus an honorary Emirati last name or two.

The darker side

That made me feel safe, secure, and welcome in their presence.

The problem was that when I wasn’t in their presence, I wasn’t totally safe. During my third week in Sharjah, I received a phone call from an unidentified number. A gruff voice ordered me to report to an isolated room near the university’s administrative offices.

Waiting for me was a muscular, bearded man wearing a suit sitting behind a large desk. He wasn’t an Emirati. He told me he was with the Criminal Investigations Department, the UAE’s equivalent to the secret police. He accused me of being a troublemaker and said he was receiving notifications that I was causing incitement, provocation, and displaying signs of political dissent. He warned me that in the UAE, the walls have eyes and ears, watching and listening to me to make sure I’m not up to anything suspicious.

The people who run the day-to-day operations of the UAE, including the security services, are not Emirati. Many of them come from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and the Palestinian territories, and they do things their way

Days later, I lost the ability to connect to the Internet from my dorm room. When I approached the Palestinian building supervisor about the problem, he bluntly said he’d been told by security services to pay special attention to me. He asked me where I was from, where I was really from. When I said I was from the US, he asked me again in Hebrew. I never got Internet access back in my room.

I Am Not a Spy, by Michael Bassin

Towards the end of my time in the UAE, upon returning from a trip to Lebanon and Syria, I found out that a student from Saudi Arabia of Indian origin had been kidnapped and beaten by the CID, who were convinced he was plotting with me to get Israelis into the country. They showed him photos of me from all over campus and questioned him about who I really was.

My Emirati friends may have treated me like royalty, but the people who run the day-to-day operations of the UAE, including the security services, are not Emirati. Many of them come from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and the Palestinian territories, and they do things their way.

Thanks to the UAE’s wealth and technological sophistication, it had the ability even then to restrict information, stifle free speech, and enforce order in ways that poor autocracies can only dream of.

Non-Emiratis know they’re potentially being watched or recorded at all times and in danger of losing their residency rights in the country if they make the slightest slip up. Ironically, the UAE tends to take harsher action for infractions on Muslims than on non-Muslims. I was constantly told that if a westerner was found wandering the streets of Sharjah drunk by police, they might be put in jail for a night, but they’d probably just as likely be driven home. One Sudanese student I knew received fifty lashes on his back. In the UAE, Muslims are supposed to know better.

The inherent status differences between Emiratis and non-Emiratis who live permanently in the country festers great resentment. Honored as I was by my quasi-Emirati status, I often invited other friends to join me on my excursions with Emiratis. But aside from a few Arabs from other Gulf countries, none of the other students ever accepted my invitations. Most of them outright refused to interact with Emiratis unless they were forced to do so. On some occasions, friends would rise from their chairs and switch tables when an Emirati would come greet me just to highlight their unwillingness to give him the time of day.

Many of these friends were scared because they were under severe pressure to find stable jobs to sponsor them once they graduated from university. They were born and raised in the UAE, but if they couldn’t find employment within three months of graduation, they’d be deported to a country they’d never lived in before. Being around Emiratis reminded them of the status they could never attain.

The vast majority of the non-Emiratis I became friends with came from very privileged backgrounds. But even for them, much less a Pakistani construction worker or an Indonesian house maid, the disparity in privilege between Emiratis and non-Emiratis was too much to overcome to have any type of friendship.

As one Palestinian friend told me, “The UAE’s a weird place. Most Arabs around here would rather be friends with a Jew than with each other.”

My experiences living in the UAE happened long ago, but based on subsequent trips to the country and conversations with friends living there, these issues are ongoing.

The UAE’s recognition of Israel is a tremendous step forward for the region and is likely to bring great prosperity and stability in the years to come. But as Israelis rightfully seek to enjoy the fruits of peace, we must appreciate what the UAE is and what it is not as we build relationships with the people who live there.

About the Author
Michael Bassin is a founding member of the Gulf-Israel Business Council, a co-founder at ScaleUpSales Ltd, and the author of "I Am Not a Spy: An American Jew Goes Deep In The Arab World & Israeli Army."
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