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Amid the swirling sands sweeping across the Gulf, I arrived in the United Arab Emirates. I found a kingdom of "black gold" shining above the golden desert. Awash in petrodollars, the Emirates is an oasis of avarice and opulence. Like Israel, it has also "made the desert bloom." Palmyra lines the roads, and there are lush green areas to picnic and play, under the ever-expanding skylines.
The Emirates is a cultural mosaic with people from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia coming to shop, work and live out their champagne wishes and caviar dreams.
Dubai was unlike any city I had ever visited. It is a strange Middle Eastern combination of Miami glitz and Las Vegas surrealism: Disney World meets the desert. While I was in Dubai, I visited the Mall of the Emirates, a posh shopping mall where you can actually go skiing on a mountain of snow. Yes, you can ski in the middle of the desert. With its lavish stores, the Mall of the Emirates could make Rodeo Drive blush. Walking through the mall, I was as surprised by the shoppers as the stores they were patronizing.
Many women wore veils and abbayas (cloaks). But when I stopped focusing on the black, I started noticing the sequins that adorn them. There were veils with colorful patterns that sparkled, and even ones with fox-fur lining.
I noticed the mascara on the eyes peeking out from behind the slits. I saw the fancy watches and jewels that adorned the wrists of these guardians of modesty. All the fancy high heels and painted toes below the black crape. Designer sunglasses sitting on top of veils, and designer hand bags that lay tucked under the arms. I even passed by a lingerie store and saw these black-veiled ladies shopping for lace and silk. Perhaps we have been focusing too long on the veils to notice the fashion plates hiding just beneath.
There were teenage girls with lots of makeup, wearing designer jeans and shoes, covered just slightly by veils that were more like cloaks. They were climbing the artificial rock wall in the mall's arcade area, and screaming from the heights of the indoor roller coasters.
Meanwhile, the super-chic sheikhs walked around in their impeccable white dishdashas (robe-like dress shirts), with designer high-end sunglasses just below their keffiyehs and headdresses. Wires attached to the latest cellphones hung out of their robes or were wrapped around their fingers.
While I was in Sharjah, King Abdullah of Jordan was in Washington, DC, speaking to Congress and the White House about the Saudi peace plan. I decided to gauge people's feelings about the plan and the idea that if peace was agreed upon, Israelis could flock to the Emirates' multitude of shopping malls.
I spoke with a Bahraini man named Muhammad, who was staying at my hostel and visiting his daughter studying in Sharjah. He felt that with the resolution of the Palestinian question as outlined under the Saudi plan, he would have no issue or problem with Bahrain or any of the Arab states having ties with Israel. "Palestine is a symbol to the Arabs," he said, "and without coming to an agreement for a Palestinian state, it is not possible to move forward. But if the Palestinians have their own state, I have no issue with Israel."
A few days later, I was in Abu Dhabi, at the ritzy Marina Mall. I was sitting in Starbucks, sipping a cup of coffee next to a traditionally dressed local man named Abdulrahman. He said peace between Israel and the Arabs was not possible. "The Saudi plan will fail like all the other plans before it because the Jews in Israel will never agree to a real peace," he said. "They will never allow a fully independent, viable Palestinian state with full sovereignty. There will never be a true peace."
Abdulrahman said even if there was an agreement on the Saudi plan, which he didn't think possible, and even with normalization of relations between the Emirates and Israel, he didn't want Israelis coming to shop in the mall. He lectured to me about the nature of the Jews, and "informed" me that the Jews of Europe were really descended from Gypsies.
He then asked me what my religion was, and I replied that I was Jewish. The look on his face was priceless. He said he wasn't an anti-Semite because he, too, was a Semite, adding that Jews, but not Israelis, were welcome in the Gulf and shouldn't feel uneasy. Back in Dubai, I spoke with my fellow residents at the youth hostel. Speaking with a Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian and Palestinian, I discussed the Saudi plan. The consensus was that the Saudi plan was a way forward for all sides.
While no one had any affinity for Israel, no one had any qualms about their own countries having ties with Israel if the Palestinian question was resolved. No one was championing the destruction of Israel, or the Palestinian "right of return," but all felt strongly that peace and normalization with Israel centered on a Palestinian state.
As an American Jew in the Emirates, I really felt no problems. Granted it helps that I speak some Arabic after studying it in Morocco and in college. People were shocked that an American spoke some Arabic, and doubly shocked when they asked my religion and I replied "ana Yehudi."
Sadly, I can't say it would have been as easy if I was an Israeli. But in all my discussions about the Saudi plan, and what the region would look like in its wake, in time things possibly could be different. I'm sure the naysayers who "know the Arabs" will deride this as sheer naivete, but how well can you really know the Arabs if you have never seen them skiing or shopping with reckless abandon.
Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He is on a six-month trek around the world. You can read more of his misadventures at his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com and see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18.