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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Opinion: My trip to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain


Over a delicious cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee in the palatial Emirates Palace, we asked the UAE foreign minister what, in his opinion, is the difference between Israelis and Emiratis after Israel spent time negotiating the Abraham Accords.

He paused, with a twinkle in his eye, and replied: “When we Emiratis have to say no, we say it with a smile.”

It is the intimate, personal, human interaction with a head of state like this that makes our travels to once off-limits countries so extraordinary. But let me start from the beginning.

In March 2022, I received an invitation from Howard Goldstein, Chairman of the Israel Development Corporation/Israel Bond National and International Board of Directors, to travel with him and a Bond leadership delegation to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. The trip will be one of the first high-level Jewish delegations to celebrate and meet the heads of the historic Abrahamic Accords. Talks were held with the President, Ambassadors, Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Defense and members of the royal family.

Wow! What a great opportunity. But will we feel welcome or even safe in Arab countries? On this trip, we were just one step away from Iran. Should my wife and I accept this invitation? But really, how could we turn down such a rare opportunity?

So in May 2022, we joined the leadership of Israel Bonds on a trip to the UAE, Bahrain and Israel to celebrate, spread the word and learn about the why, who and great possibilities of the Abraham Accords. We hope this will be a rare opportunity to see these countries, engage with their cultures and people, and have the opportunity to meet in person the leaders of each country’s government, civil society and business sectors.

The UAE and Bahrain are two small countries located on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, next to Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were only established in 1971. The UAE is a federation of seven contiguous kingdoms, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. According to the Constitution, the President of the United Arab Emirates is the King of Abu Dhabi and the Vice President is the King of Dubai. In 1971, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait refused to join the UAE and formed their own countries.

Oil was first discovered in Bahrain in the 1930s and is the source of the region’s current enormous wealth. However, due to aggressive efforts to diversify, only 5% of Dubai’s GDP is now derived from oil. The UAE has the third largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, surpassing even Saudi Arabia in size. Dubai is a grand, ultra-modern city-state that feels like a futuristic city.

The skyscrapers of Dubai overlook the country’s largest city with a population of around 10 million.

It is worth noting that only 10% of the UAE’s population are citizens. The others are foreign workers, administrators, managers and professionals. About 10 million people live in the UAE (3.5 million in Dubai). Bahrain, a tiny island connected by a bridge to Saudi Arabia, has a population of 1.5 million, only 50 percent of whom hold citizenship. If you Google “Bahrain,” you’ll see claims like this: “Bahrain is considered one of the best places in the world to live and work.”

What overwhelming feelings have we experienced? First, we felt safe and very welcome. We were warmly welcomed by the leaders and people of the UAE and Bahrain.

This trip gave us hope. As a testament to the power of peace, we were most impressed by not only a new commitment to tolerance, but also an active effort to welcome non-Muslims into their communities. We experienced genuine enthusiasm for Judaism, including our community of proud Zionists. We believed it when the royals and the Foreign Office said they sincerely wanted to move away from previous conflicts.

I found that many Middle Eastern Arabs do not hate the Jews, nor despise Israel, nor long for its destruction. I came to understand that in Middle Eastern Arab countries women have similar opportunities as in Western countries. I learned that Israel’s future is promising and that the Abraham Accords can be a model for peace and prosperity in the region.

The synagogue is located in the bustling main market of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf.

As we walked through Bahrain’s bustling main market, we spotted the synagogue in the middle.Imagine our surprise when we learned that both Jewish owners of the synagogue were members of the Bahraini parliament, one of whom was a woman in her early 50s and most recently served as Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States

What is the Abraham Agreement? The agreement is not actually a peace treaty, since Israel is not at war with any of these countries. The agreement is a declaration of normalization and warm peace: between people, embracing each other, and tolerating each other’s religions and histories.

The Abrahamic Agreement is named after the descendants of Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, who returned together. The peace process has continued since the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel in September 2020. Morocco normalized relations with Israel in December 2020.

As we meet the leaders of these countries, I wonder what the Abraham Accords are good for the UAE and Bahrain. Why should they risk the anger of many brethren? There are two main reasons they are willing to take such big risks: Iran and the economy.

Thanks to the agreement, the UAE and Bahrain now openly share military and intelligence capabilities with Israel, an alliance that could deter more overt Iranian aggression. Iran is so close to the UAE we can see it from the top of a skyscraper in Dubai.

Politically, the monarchies of these countries have a deep desire for peace in the region. This is not just some noble, enlightened wish for peace. Instead, peace creates prosperity and economic development, which creates political stability in an absolute monarchy where 90% of the population is non-citizens. These kings acknowledged that by improving the future and lifestyle of their citizens, especially young people, they would be less likely to be attracted to radical Islam and anti-royal activities.

Economically, the Abraham Accords will help these countries grow their economies and diversify into oil. They want Israeli and Western companies to bring their startups and unique entrepreneurial capabilities to the UAE and Bahrain. Their recent history demonstrates the importance of diversity.

A key point in understanding the true historicity of the agreement is recognizing that these countries are willing to move forward forward Solve the question of Palestine. In frank discussions, with smiles and enthusiasm, they told us they wanted a Palestinian state next to a safe Jewish Israel.They are now openly advocating a Palestinian state next to it, but no instead of Israel.

In short, they are unwilling to put their own country’s economic and political well-being on hold for the sake of the Palestinian issue, especially given the threat from Iran.

Moreover, the king and ministers now openly acknowledge that Jews were an important part of the region for millennia, not just arriving as European refugees in 1948; the Holocaust was real. In Dubai, we visited the first Holocaust memorial in the Arab world and the Museum of Middle Eastern Jewish History. It is funded by and named after the King.

Logo of the Holocaust Museum in Dubai, a large city in the United Arab Emirates.

More than 160,000 Israelis have traveled to Dubai. One of the most important outcomes of the Abraham Accords has been positive changes in human-to-human interactions and the flourishing of private sector bilateral initiatives.

Dubai has an active synagogue offering Glatt Kosher food and catering. There are daily folklore performances in Dubai’s best residential areas. Jews have existed long before the Abraham Accords and are firmly integrated into the business and cultural aspects of Dubai. Anti-Semitism will not be tolerated. A foreign Palestinian worker was immediately deported after verbally accosting a Jewish man wearing a kippah at a gas station.

The status of women in the UAE is not like the stereotypes we see in other Muslim countries. Currently, women account for more than 50% of college students and are senior leaders at all levels of society, government, business and culture. Exceptions are monarchies and religious leaders, where only men are allowed.

What’s it like to be in an absolute monarchy? I admit we have selective experiences, but it doesn’t look bad or depressing. Remember, the vast majority of people come to these countries for good wages, safe streets, beautiful homes, and a good education for their children. They are not here to seek or expect an equal vote. They came to the UAE and Bahrain to live a safe and better life compared to their home countries.

Milwaukee had 21 shootings in one weekend when we went. A good king knows that in order to keep his throne, people must be happy, safe and prosperous. The current benevolent despot has created unparalleled growth and prosperity and created social and infrastructural projects of unparalleled magnitude for the people. The monarchy allows the government to implement new projects more quickly and decisively.

We spent the last third of our trip in Jerusalem. We had the privilege of meeting closely with President Isaac Herzog, Secretary of Finance Avigdor Lieberman, and Secretary of Defense Benny Gantz.

The defense minister strongly stated that the Iran nuclear deal is terrible for Israel because it gave Iran the time and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons and attack Israel’s long-range delivery systems. Israel trusts the Iranian leadership, who say they intend to wipe Israel off the map. Israel has pledged not to allow Iran the ability to do so. Ganz told us, “All options are on the table.”

He believes war with Hezbollah in Lebanon is likely. Israel is planning and preparing. It will be a very tough challenge, but he advises us to “bet on Israel”.

Gantz is pragmatic about near-term relations with the Palestinians. The Israeli government is actively working to improve the educational level and quality of life of Israel’s young population of Arabs and Palestinians. This population will witness the tangible benefits of the agreement and cooperation with Israel, rather than the disastrous effects of 75 years of trying to destroy Israel.

Meanwhile, while they wait and look forward to the “new” Palestinian situation, Israel will aim to be the strongest and most capable military in the region. Gantz believed Kuwait would sign the Abraham Accords in 2023 and said he wanted Saudi Arabia to commit to the agreement, which would change everything.

Since the return, the UAE and Israel announced a $10 billion trade deal on June 2, dwarfing all cumulative trade since the start of the “cold” peace with Egypt and Jordan. On our trip we flew directly over Saudi Arabia, from Bahrain to Ben Gurion.

I encourage everyone to show support for the bold signatories of the Agreement. Please consider visiting Bahrain and the UAE. They are beautiful, exotic, modern and fascinating countries with a refreshingly open and tolerant view of people and politics. Not only will you feel safe, but you will also receive a warm welcome.

The Abraham Accords were a truly historic event in the history of Israel, the Jewish people and the Middle East. I am hopeful that this agreement will serve as a template for peace and prosperity, ultimately leading to a secure and bright future for Jews and Arabs throughout the region.

* * *

Dr. Mark Ian Freedman is This Chairman of Wisconsin Israel Bonds and Member of Bonds National Campaign Advisory Committee.


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