In October, I was fortunate enough to join the Joint Distribution Committee on an inaugural trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The JDC is the leading global Jewish humanitarian organization, working in over 60 countries in helping build, revive, and rescue Jews around the world. It is more colloquially known as the Jewish 911.
The Abraham Accords Peace Agreement of September of 2019, signed by UAE, Bahrain, Israel, and the USA, calling for a treaty of peace, diplomatic relations, and full normalization. The boarders between our respective countries opened and that made this inaugural trip possible – a first time for any organized Jewish community.
A group of 20 professionals were selected from across the country to join this once in a lifetime opportunity. For seven days, we toured the majestic Emirates of Dubai and Abi Dhabi, two of seven Emirates comprising the UAE and previously inaccessible for an Israeli like myself. Below are a few of the major takeaways I had from the trip.
1. Oil doesn’t last forever.
Dubai, a monarchy headed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has differentiated itself with an early understanding that their oil, a source of great wealth, is a commodity that will not last for eternity. As a result, since the early ’80s, Dubai has been diversifying the country’s portfolio and investing in a myriad of different initiatives to create sustained, long-term wealth, outside the oil. The country has built roads, infrastructure, attractions, real estate. It has worked to become a financial, trading and import/export hub for the gulf countries and Africa.
2. Win the people.
Early on, the sheikh of Dubai understood that wealth generated by a natural resource cannot be solely held by the ruler, for the people will starve in the streets. Dubai is comprised of only 10% Emirate citizens and 90% non-citizen residents from across the world. As an Emirati, you get special privileges from the government – house, land, car, employment opportunities and monthly stipend. Throughout seven days, we came across no more than a handful of Emiratees.
3. Building a Jewish community.
Having the opportunity to travel and observe and partake in Jewish communities around the world, this is the first time I saw a Jewish community, that previously didn’t exist at all being built. People of all Jewish creeds, ethnicities, citizenship and backgrounds came together in early 2010 to build a community. Initially secretly congregating and later, after the Sheikh announced 2019 as the year of tolerance across the country, being visibly and proudly involved. The community has since expanded to over 1,000 people, who practice through three primary minyans.
4. Safety and security.
In a monarchy, where there is a single ruler, essentially a CEO, there are certain liberties that they can take without being questioned. We see this used for evil, good and anything in between. It was fascinating to see how certain liberties that we hold dear are readily put on the backburner to promote other values. For example, it is very well known that Dubai is one of the safest cities in the world. They achieve that safety in exchange for a loss of privacy – you know that you are watched and tracked, overtly or covertly.
5. Is bigger better?
Since Dubai gained independence from Great Britain in 1971; the people of Dubai were previously desert nomads. There is no history or DNA to the city that leads back to ancient civilizations and architecture. Everything has been built in the past few decades with the economic boom. Dubai, whether by choice or necessity, is a lavish, very wealthy city where it seems everything there holds a Guinness world record: Deepest pool, tallest building, largest malls, biggest 24 carat gold ring, biggest indoor aquarium, biggest mosque, biggest chandelier, and the list continues. Dubai provides a grasp at every turn, due to the sheer size of any attraction, around every corner.
6. Real peace.
Over the years, Israel has made peace with several majority Arab-Muslim countries – Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, but is it “real” peace? When all too often, citizens of these countries are marching in the streets calling for the destruction of Israel or are serially voting against Israel in any international forum? For now, that is not the case in the UAE. Once the Sheikh decided that there is peace with Israel, that is the law of the land. In the recent May conflict between Israel and Hamas, the UAE was a rare Arab-Muslim country that didn’t have any violent riots in the streets calling for the destruction of Israel.
The whole trip was something special. I felt a part of history. I never imagined, as an Israeli, that I would someday enjoy a safe trip to Dubai. It has been amazing to see, in the news, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet on a recent visit to Dubai.
The future is not written for us. All things are possible.
Shimon G. Levy is chief operating officer of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Shimon Levy atop the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 2,717 feet.