Visit to the United Arab Emirates - November 12, 2021

(This week’s email is longer than usual)
 As mentioned last week, we will be sharing videos of community members explaining the vital role of the Jewish Federation from their perspective. Here is a new video highlighting Mindy Zeitzer, Chair of our Allocations Committee.
Last week, I had the opportunity to travel with a small group of Federation professionals from around the country to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Over five days, I visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi to learn more about the positive impact of the Abraham Accords (recent peace agreement between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain), to meet with the Jewish community, and to explore what Jewish groups may experience if they travel there.
The United Arab Emirates is located on the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula on the southeastern coast of the Persian Gulf. The UAE was founded on December 2, 1971 when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan unified the seven independent emirates into one country. The seven sheikdoms were formerly known as the Trucial States and previously were under a British protectorate. Today, the president of the country is always from Abu Dhabi and the vice-president from Dubai.
I do not want to give you a “travel log” and instead provide some insights into what I experienced.
General thoughts:
  • There are nine million people living in the UAE. Interestingly, only one million are Emiratis and have citizenship and eight million people are from over 200 countries from around the world. (Our guide was from India, bus driver from Pakistan, host from Nigeria, etc.) Because of this, English is the common language.
  • The country wants more people to move there – for brain power, economic reasons, workers for construction and tourism, etc.. It is attractive because there is no crime (cameras are everywhere), no houselessness, and no unemployment. For ex-pats to live in the country they must be employed.
  • For being in the desert, the country is surprisingly humid.
  • It feels as though the unofficial policy for the country is to copy what other places have but make it bigger and splashier. It is amazing the building boom over the past 15 years. It is a mix between New York and Las Vegas. Huge buildings (offices, hotels, apartments) with flashing bright lights everywhere. One example is a hotel with two buildings side by side. The 75th floor of the hotel is a “floating” swimming pool connecting the two towers.
  • Dubai is home to the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which is 2,722 feet high (a little over a half a mile). On the bottom floor of the building is a kosher restaurant, which makes a statement that Jews are important to the country.
  • Ski year-round at the Mall of the Emirates, home to indoor skiing.
  • The Dubai Expo (World’s Fair) is open until March 2021. 192 countries have exhibitions, including Israel, the first time Israel has ever been represented in an Arab country.
  • The Palm Jumeirah is an incredible archipelago of artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree. Interestingly, no steel or concrete was used – it is comprised of 120 million cubic meters of sand brought up from the seabed.
  • Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate and the cultural and religious capital of the country. The city hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum and is home to the Grand Mosque, which can hold 55,000 people for prayer services.
  • The UAE is very focused on their public image. Knowing that two of the bombers on 9/11 were from the UAE, the government takes great pains to reduce radicalism and terrorism. Instead of each mosque in the country having its own Imam (religious leader) deliver their own sermon, there is a single “sermon of the week” that is provided to all mosques across the country.
  • Earlier this week, the UAE continued its push to be “one of the most attractive destinations for talent and skills” by allowing non-Muslims to marry, divorce, and get joint child custody under civil law. This is the first of its kind in the Arab world.
The Jewish community:
  • Although Jews have lived there for a long time, the organizing of the Jewish community is relatively new.
  • There are varied estimates on how many Jews live in the United Arab Emirates – from 600 to 5,000+.
  • There are no synagogues in the UAE (maybe one day?). Instead, there are different minyanim that meet in local hotels. They must get a permit from the government to hold group prayer services.
  • On Friday night, we had Shabbat dinner at the hotel with 30 members of the Jewish community (most were from France), including Rabbi Elie Abadie, Senior Rabbi of the UAE (born in Lebanon, raised in Mexico City, ordained at Yeshiva University, and a licensed gastroenterologist). We did not have a permit to pray. Rabbi Abadie led us in prayer to welcome Shabbat and, almost immediately, a security guard entered the room and stayed the rest of the meal.
  • Chabad operates a Jewish pre-school, Hebrew school, teen programs, and summer camps. Next door is a new Jewish Community Center with programming and staffing support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
  • Once the Abraham Accords were signed (which the Jewish community had no idea was going to happen when it did), every hotel in the country was required to have a kosher kitchen and to provide kosher food. Interestingly, all the kosher meat comes from Poland.
  • There is a mikvah. How do you operate a mikvah when it does not rain in the desert? Several times a year, community members visit Siberia and bring back very large blocks of ice to create the natural water for the mikvah.
  • There is a Jewish cemetery in the UAE. As of now, there are no Jews buried there (remember, people living there are ex-pats and still get buried in their home country).
  • Since the Accords were signed, over 100,000 Israelis have already visited the UAE. While I was there, Emirates Airlines announced direct flights to Tel Aviv starting next month, which will bring thousands of people from the UAE to Israel.
  • Emirates Airlines is a partner with Jewish entrepreneurs on Kosher Arabia to provide kosher meals on flights.
Allow me to close with this story that sums up the experience and my feelings about the potential success of the Abraham Accords. On the final night, we met with representatives from a group called Sharaka - شراكة (meaning partnership). This younger generation of Israelis and Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze want to work together to make the region better. They are devoted to continuing the progress and momentum. They were clear, “Boycotts and conflict are not the way - partnership/sharaka - is the only way forward.”
A young man involved with Sharaka named Louie, who is from Saudi Arabia and now lives in Dubai, talked about his new found love and understanding of the Jewish people. He had always been taught ugly things about Israel. The Abraham Accords inspired him to think differently, to learn Hebrew, and to study Jewish texts. He told the story of his visit to Jordan and standing on Mt. Nebo overlooking the Dead Sea towards Israel. He reminded us that was the same mountain Moses stood on when God told him he could look at the Land of Israel, but never enter. Louie shared how while he was on top of the mountain, he prayed that one day he would enter the Land of Israel. He will be visiting soon.
The United Arab Emirates is more than impressive. Everything is big, bright, and splashy. They are a modern society that wants people to both visit and relocate. The Jewish community feels safe and secure. You can feel how much the government is doing to make the Abraham Accords a success in regard to relations/trade/security with Israel. Most of all, there is a great desire to bring Arabs and Jews together. This is not a "cold peace." Nor does the UAE want to create peace solely between diplomats and politicians. This is about grassroots connections between everyday people -- and you can be a part of that story.
Shabbat shalom and a belated THANK YOU as we honor all who have served our country.
Marc N. Blattner
President and CEO 


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