Israel's behind-the-scenes ambassador to UAE - revealed

Dan Shaham is the go-to person for innovation diplomacy in Abu Dhabi

Dan Shaham (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dan Shaham
(photo credit: Courtesy)
DUBAI – When Dr. Dan Shaham arrived in the UAE one year ago, little did he realize he would be a part of a history-making peace deal. The diplomat of 27 years has been in Abu Dhabi as the Head of Mission to IRENA, at the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency, as the only official Israeli diplomat in the Emirates, until now.
Accompanied only by Shaham’s security team, the go-to-person for “innovation diplomacy” played his part in the years of behind-the-scenes work building relationships between the two countries, which culminated in the signing of the Abraham Accords in Washington last month.
What followed since Shaham’s arrival is “a dream come true, really the dream of every diplomat,” he said.
Though nobody could have predicted what would come when the announcement for normalization was made on August 13, Shaham said he has long felt strongly about the future of peace between the two countries.
“I did see this coming,” Shaham said, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “I was brought into this position as a change-maker for IRENA, but we came out with so much more.”
The Israeli office for IRENA was the first Israeli mission in the UAE. Opened in 2015, it was led by Rami Hatan, and since then, there had been signs of warming relations. From the announcement of an Israeli pavilion at the Expo 2020 event (now postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19) to Israeli athletes slowly being welcomed to the UAE capital in martial arts competitions, and most of all, the announcement of plans to build the Abrahamic Center in Abu Dhabi, an impressive complex housing a synagogue, mosque and church, the UAE’s first official acknowledgment of Jews within its state, clearly things were changing in the right direction.
During his long career, Shaham held diplomatic postings including in the US, Germany and the UK, but the UAE was his first in the Middle East. “As Israeli diplomats, we usually hit the ground running, with contacts, programs in place that we continue,” he said. “Yes, you can make your mark, put your personality to these programs, but in the UAE, it was the chance to start almost from scratch.”
It was when the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al Otaiba, began making public declarations to the Israelis that it was “normalization or annexation,” that things became very clear. “Taking a possible crisis and turning it into a positive development was a stroke of genius on the part of political leadership and the US,” said Shaham.
Since normalization was announced, research and development partnerships between the two nations in the likes of health, AI and finance have flourished, and as the world watched the UAE’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed write the poignant words “never again,” there was much more happening around the diplomatic table.
“While everyone looked at the visit to the Holocaust Memorial, behind the scenes, they were actually also agreeing on cooperation in the field of renewable energy,” explained Shaham. “This year was a time to understand that building a bridge wasn’t about just selling the UAE products and technology. What the UAE really cares for is to have the innovation capacity for advanced food farms, medical services, water and energy. Things that benefit the population.”
During his years in Germany, this innovation diplomacy model was pioneered with “the new kibbutz” system, bringing Germans to Israel to intern in start-ups, and from there, building “partnership accelerators,” whereby young innovators from the two nations collaborated to solve real world problems. “The UAE’s vision is to make the desert green. So my vision is to assist them to create that ecosystem and the capacity to support that,” Shaham explained. “It’s about creating a center to develop the next 50 years of innovation in the Middle East.” Not only will this include universities, but it will be a comprehensive plan including start-ups and businesses.
“Diplomacy can happen in a variety of ways, beyond the commercial or security aspects of a relationship,” he said. “In essence, it’s about building solid enough networks beyond the political ones.”
While the likes of tourism will build themselves quickly and commercially, as both nations are curious to experience travel between the two states, and business relationships are already building organically, innovation relationships are those which need to be nurtured carefully, said Shaham. A more long-term and sustainable relationship of cooperation and trust is necessary, he said.
“In the case of Germany, science was the building block of the relationship we now have,” Shaham said. “It’s not a transactional relationship, but is collaborative, requiring a lot of trust. Scientists don’t want the interference of politicians, they want the independence of innovating, so they’re not only building a bridge, but it’s a very meaningful connection.”
In London, during his time at the embassy there, the importance of scientific collaboration was proven critical amid the Second Intifada (2003-2005). There was a move to boycott the scientific institutions of Israel through the AUT, which his diplomatic team managed to block.
“Scientists argued that they didn’t want to be used in the political discourse of the conflict,” he said. “They saw themselves as bridge builders. A boycott went against the very thing the scientists stand for – being a force for unity between both sides. I was happy to be part of that as it could have been one of the biggest challenges to Israeli legitimacy in the academic world and beyond.”
It is with this knowledge that Shaham moves forward with his role in the UAE – using science and innovation as the path to peace and modern-day diplomacy.