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What the Muslim World — and the West — Can Learn From the UAE

avatar by Ariel Rodal-Spieler

Opinion

Israeli model May Tager, holding an Israeli flag, poses with Dubai-resident model Anastasia Bandarenka, holding an Emirati flag, during a photo shoot for FIX’s Princess Collection, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 8, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Christopher Pike.

A few days ago, I returned from a week-long trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I participated in a World Jewish Congress (WJC) delegation as an Israeli representative of the WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps — a worldwide network of young Jewish leaders from 60 countries, who advocate for world Jewry by engaging in diplomacy and helping shape public policy and opinion. The aim of the delegation was to begin to build relationships between the Jewish communities around the world and current and future leaders in the UAE.

Our delegation was hosted by the UAE’s embassy to the United States. We met with leading figures from government, business, think tanks, faith communities, and cultural institutions. The week culminated in a moving Shabbat with the Jewish community of Dubai, which has emerged from the shadows into the light since the signing of the Abraham Accords. This year, the Jewish Council of the Emirates officially became the 103rd Jewish community to join the World Jewish Congress.

The UAE has made a tremendous effort in improving tolerance for all peoples in words and action. Jews in the UAE can now walk down the street wearing kippot, without fearing for their safety. Many of my fellow delegates from Europe and North America observed that the same cannot be said of their own hometowns.

In addition to setting a high bar for the protection of religious minorities, the UAE is a model of what a Muslim country can be. There is, as government officials told us, “a complete intolerance of intolerance” — for example, any school found to be teaching fundamentalist Islam is immediately shut down. They proudly assert that coexistence is a supreme goal that was established by the nation’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

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The Abraham Accords — the historic normalization agreements signed between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan — were a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal year. They were the first major agreements to be signed between Israel and an Arab country since 1994, and are quickly proving to be the warmest of agreements, certainly on the people-to-people and civil society levels.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Abraham Accords is that they changed the paradigm of peace-making in the Middle East. Rather than wait for the Palestinians to come to the table in a sincere effort to end the conflict, the Abraham Accords shifted the focus towards a broader Middle East peace. Its architects recognized that the alignment of interests between Israel and moderate Arab states, who have much in common and much to gain, offered an opportune moment for real achievement.

As a senior Emirati official we met told us, “The region has changed, not just the UAE. We must be willing to fight for our cause of peace and progress in the region. During the last Gaza war, many in Europe and the United States supported Hamas propaganda. This is wrong. We have to change the narrative.”

Nevertheless, there are some in the Western world who are reluctant to credit and embrace the Abraham Accords, an undeniable achievement of the Trump presidency, because they associate the Accords with a person they find objectionable.

As a fellow WJC JDCorps delegate reflected, “In the months before the trip, I was skeptical. This delegation was traveling in commemoration of the Abraham Accords, which were enacted under the Trump Presidency. Yet much of the Trump Presidency still fills me with trauma and sadness, sentiments that tainted my view of the Accords as well.”

This is perhaps understandable, but unfortunate. A historic breakthrough of this magnitude should inspire all to rise above partisan considerations.

What we are witnessing is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The greatest chance for broader peace in the Middle East is the expansion of the Abraham Accords to other countries in the region. This will happen as countries become convinced that peace is in their interest, and see that the UAE and the other parties to the Accords are recognized, admired, and rewarded for the bold steps they have taken.

The international community must learn to give credit where credit is due, and take advantage of the momentum offered by the Accords. Actively supporting and expanding the Accords is what will finally bring about a new Middle East.

The author is a writer, translator, and member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps.

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