At the opulent and grand Emirates Palace, over delicious cardamom spiced Arabian coffee, we asked the Emirati minister of foreign affairs: After spending time in Israel negotiating the Abraham Accords what did he see as the difference between Israelis and Emiratis?
He paused, and with a twinkle in his eye replied, “When we Emiratis must say no, we do it with a smile.”
It was intimate, personal, people-to-people interactions like this with heads of state that made our trip to countries once off-limits so extraordinary. But let me start at the beginning.
In March of 2022, I received an invitation from Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds National and International Chairman of the Board Howard L. Goldstein to join him and a delegation of Bonds leadership to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel. The trip would be among the first high-level Jewish delegations to celebrate and meet the people responsible for the historic Abraham Accords. Meetings were scheduled with presidents, ambassadors, ministers of finance, foreign affairs, and defense, and members of the royal families.
Wow! What an opportunity. But would we feel welcome or even safe, in an Arab country? On this trip, we would be a stone’s throw from Iran. Should my wife and I accept this invitation? But, really, how could we say no to such an incredible opportunity?
So in May 2022, we joined Israel Bonds leadership and journeyed to the UAE, Bahrain and Israel to celebrate, promote and understand the reasons, the people and the tremendous possibilities of the Abraham Accords. We hoped this would be an extraordinary chance to see these countries, be exposed to their culture and people, and have a unique opportunity to personally meet with the leaders of government, civil society and business sectors of each country.
The UAE and Bahrain are two small countries situated along the Arabian Gulf, adjacent to Saudi Arabia. The UAE and Bahrain only came into existence in 1971. The UAE was formed from a federation of seven contiguous kingdoms, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Constitutionally, the president of UAE is the king of Abu Dhabi, and the king of Dubai is vice president. In 1971, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait declined to join the UAE, forming their own countries.
Oil was first discovered in the region in Bahrain in the 1930s and is the current source of the region’s great wealth. However, due to active efforts to diversify, only 5% of Dubai’s GDP now comes from oil. The UAE has the third largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, even larger than Saudi Arabia’s. Dubai is a magnificent, ultra-modern city-state, resembling a futuristic city.
It is important to note that only 10% of the UAE’s population are citizens. All others are foreign workers, administrators, managers and professionals. About 10 million people live in the UAE (3.5 million in Dubai). Bahrain is a tiny island connected by a bridge to Saudi Arabia, and has a population of 1.5 million, only 50% of whom hold citizenship. If you Google “Bahrain,” you will see the statement: “Bahrain is considered number one on a list of best places in the world to live and work in.”
What overwhelming feelings did we experience? First of all, we felt safe and incredibly welcomed. We were warmly embraced by the leaders and people of the UAE and Bahrain.
This trip gave us hope. In a testament to the power of peace, we were most impressed with a new commitment not only to tolerance, but also an active effort to welcome non-Muslims into their communities. We experienced genuine warmth towards Judaism, including our group, composed of proud Zionists. We believed it when members of the royal family and Foreign Ministry expressed their sincere desire to move past previous conflicts.
I discovered that many Middle Eastern Arabs do not hate Jews, nor despise Israel or long for its destruction. I came to understand that there are Middle Eastern Arab countries where women have opportunities similar to Western countries. I learned there is hope for the future of Israel, and that the Abraham Accords can serve as an example for peace and prosperity in the region.
As we traversed the bustling main market in Bahrain, we found a synagogue situated right in the middle. Imagine our further surprise when we learned that our two Jewish hosts at the synagogue were both members of the Bahrain Parliament, and one, a woman in her early 50s, had recently served as Bahrain’s ambassador to the U.S.
What are the Abraham Accords? The Accords are not actually a peace treaty, since Israel was not at war with any of these countries. The Accords are a declaration of normalization and a warm peace: people-to-people, embracing each other, tolerant of each other’s religion and past.
The Abraham Accords are named for the descendants of the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, coming back together. In September 2020, the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel, and the progress toward peace has been constant ever since. Morocco normalized relations with Israel in December 2020.
As we met with leaders of these countries, I wondered what the advantage of the Abraham Accords was for the UAE and Bahrain. Why would they risk the violent anger of many of their brethren? There are two main reasons they would risk so much: Iran and economics.
Due to the Accords, the UAE and Bahrain are now publicly sharing military and intelligence capabilities with Israel and that alliance serves as deterrent to more overt Iranian aggression. Iran is so close to the UAE that we could see it from atop Dubai’s skyscrapers.
Politically, the monarchies of these countries deeply desire peace in the region. This is not just some noble, enlightened aspiration of peace. Rather, peace creates prosperity and economic development, which creates political stability in an absolute monarchy where 90% of the population are non-citizens. These kings acknowledge that by improving the future and lifestyle of their citizens, especially young people, they will be less likely to be enticed by radical Islamic and anti-royal family activities.
Economically, the Abraham Accords will assist these countries in growing their economies and diversifying from oil. They want Israeli and Western companies to bring their startups and unique entrepreneurial abilities to the UAE and Bahrain. Their recent history has demonstrated the vital importance of diversification.
A key point for understanding the truly historic nature of the Accords is to recognize that these countries are willing to move forward before a resolution to the Palestinian issue. During a frank discussion, and with a smile and warmth, they told us of their hope for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Jewish Israel. They now publicly advocate for a Palestinian state next to, but not instead of Israel.
Simply put, they are not willing to put their own country’s economic and political well-being on hold for the Palestinian issue, especially in light of the Iranian threat.
Furthermore, the kings, and ministers now publicly acknowledge that Jews were an important part of the region for millennia and did not just arrive as European refugees in 1948; and the Holocaust is real. In Dubai we visited the first Holocaust Memorial and Museum of Middle Eastern Jewish history in the Arab world. It is financed by and named in honor of the king.
More than 160,000 Israelis have already traveled to Dubai. One of the most important outcomes of the Abraham Accords is this positive change in people-to-people interactions and a blossoming of bilateral initiatives within the private sector.
There is an active synagogue in Dubai, and Glatt Kosher food and catering is available. There is a daily minyan in the nicest residential area of Dubai. Jews were there well before the Abraham Accords, and are solidly integrated into the business and cultural aspects of Dubai. Antisemitism is not tolerated. A foreign Palestinian worker was immediately deported after verbally accosting a kippah-wearing Jew at a gas station.
The status of women in UAE is not like our stereotyped image of other Muslim countries. Currently, women make up more than 50% of university students, and are top leaders at every level of society, government, business and culture. The exception is the monarchy and religious leaders, where only men are allowed.
What was it like to be in an absolute monarchy? I acknowledge that we had a selective experience, but it did not appear bad or oppressive. Remember, the vast majority of the population comes to these countries for a great paycheck, safe streets, a beautiful home and a good education for their children. They do not come seeking, or expecting, an equal vote. They come to the UAE and Bahrain to live a safe and much better life compared to their native lands.
We were there at a time when Milwaukee had 21 shootings in a single weekend. A good king knows that in order to keep his throne, people must be happy, safe and prosperous. The current benevolent absolute monarchs have created unparalleled growth and prosperity, and unequaled massive social and infrastructure projects for their people. Monarchies allow a government to move more quickly and decisively to implement new projects.
The last third of our trip was spent in Jerusalem. We were privileged to have intimate meetings with President Isaac Herzog, Finance Minister Finance Avigdor Lieberman, and Defense Minister Benny Ganz.
The defense minister strongly stated that the Iran nuclear deal was horrible for Israel, since it gave Iran the time and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, and the long-range delivery systems to attack Israel. Israel believes Iran’s leadership when they say they intend to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is committed to not allowing Iran to achieve the capability to do so. Ganz told us, “all options are on the table.”
He believes a war is very likely with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is planning and preparing. It will be a very difficult challenge, but he recommends that we “put our bets on Israel.”
Ganz is pragmatic regarding the near-term relationship with Palestinians. The Israeli government is actively trying to elevate the education level and quality of life for the younger demographic of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. This demographic will witness the tangible benefits of the Accords and partnering with Israel, rather than the disastrous effects of 75 years of trying to destroy Israel.
In the meantime, while they are waiting and hoping for a “new” Palestinian situation, Israel will devote itself to being the strongest, most capable military in the region. Ganz believes Kuwait will sign on to the Abraham Accords in 2023, and said he is hopeful Saudi Arabia will commit to the Accords, which would change everything.
Since returning, the UAE and Israel announced a $10 billion trade deal on June 2, dwarfing all the cumulative trade since the “cold” peace began with Egypt and Jordan. On our trip, we flew from Bahrain to Ben-Gurion Airport by flying directly over Saudi Arabia.
I encourage everyone to show support for the bold signatories of the Accords. 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. You will not only feel safe, but warmly welcomed.
The Abraham Accords are a truly historic event in Israeli, Jewish and Middle East history. I am filled with hope that the Accords will serve as a template for peace and prosperity, eventually bringing security and a bright future to Jews and Arabs of the entire region.
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Dr. Mark Ian Freedman is the Wisconsin Israel Bonds chair and a member of the Bonds National Campaign Advisory Council.