Visas, IDEX and Israel’s new UAE relations roller-coaster - analysis

In addition to the IDEX confusion and the visa-free issue, there was also the postponement of Netanyahu’s planned trip to the UAE.

DUBAI VIEWED from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)
DUBAI VIEWED from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building
Three recent decisions that have left many confused appear to underpin how Israel and the United Arab Emirates have potential for excellent relations, but also show Israel’s need for better communication. The decisions include postponement of visa-free travel until July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to schedule and then cancel a trip to Abu Dhabi and a massive number of Israeli defense companies being left in the lurch over a planned defense exhibition.
The International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) is the most important regional defense exhibition, and occurs in Abu Dhabi. It starts on February 21 and will run for five days. Thousands of people from important defense companies are expected to attend and new technologies will be unveiled there. For Israel, this was a major opportunity because it was the first time Israeli defense companies could openly attend. A large pavilion was planned for some 40 Israeli companies, according to ISDEF. ISDEF is part of Avnon Group and organizes defense exhibitions in Israel.
Israeli companies were denied permits to fly because of the airport closure. Ostensibly, this is just a fact of life under COVID rules. However, the country has made exceptions for others flying during COVID despite the closures. The companies that wanted to attend IDEX include Israel’s most important defense giants, such as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which makes the Iron Dome, and Israel Aerospace Industries. The companies had released statements about the different products they hoped to bring and show. According to Globes, they had chartered some five flights, which appeared to mean hundreds of people would want to fly to Abu Dhabi. An enduring mystery surrounds why they were not provided permission.
Meanwhile, other important defense companies around the world are continuing with their plans to attend. Saudi Arabia will send a dozen companies. 
The exhibition takes place with the cooperation with the Ministry of Defense and the General Command of the UAE Armed Forces. Azerbaijan, Portugal, Luxembourg and North Macedonia are participating for the first time, according to Defense News. State-run Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC,) which organizes the show, has said that the highest global health and safety standards will be used due to the pandemic, according to Saeed Al-Mansoori, the executive director of Capital Events, a subsidiary of ADNEC.
According to CTech by Calcalist, Al-Mansoori sent a letter hoping that Israel will participate. The exhibition is “extremely important for the exchange of business and the building of ties.” Meanwhile, Breaking Defense says the Israeli companies are hoping for a miracle. Gulf Business has covered the story as well.
Israel could have canceled its participation a month ago when it first rolled out the airport closure. The Prime Minister’s Office could have coordinated the decision. Instead, the companies, according to reports, all waited until the last minute. They were even putting out press releases up until the week before the event about the products and technology they hoped to showcase. This illustrates that while Israel is a global leader in technology and can invent some of the best artificial intelligence applications, it has trouble doing basic things like coordinating between government ministries. Often in Israel the refrain to this critique is that outsiders just don’t know how the government “really” functions and that internally everything runs smoothly. 
The facts illustrate the opposite. Lack of coordination and confusion and miscommunication are relatively common. It is true that when Israel needs to do important things related to national security, it often coordinates well. But on other issues, including very high level issues, there is lack of coordination.
THE SAME lack of clarity appeared to underpin the decision to postpone visa-free travel to the UAE. Israel pushed to quickly open flights to the UAE in November, after the peace deal. Things were so rushed that several flights arrived, resulting in visa confusion. However, in general, things went smoothly. 130,000 Israelis went to Dubai in the brief window before the airport closure in January. Yet even that experience was marred by some controversy. In one case, a senior health official appeared to blame the UAE for a rise in COVID cases in Israel, only to backtrack the statement.
The visa-free travel issue was supposed to be a bureaucratic hurdle because countries need to sign certain memorandums, and things take time and there are a certain number of days before agreements go into effect. However, the postponement was clear even on January 18, when it was announced. Visa-free travel is currently supposed to start in July . On a positive note, Israel has appointed Eitan Naeh as charge d’affaires to head the mission in the UAE. Mohamed Al-Khaja, the new UAE ambassador to Israel, has a Twitter account already. He wrote that he is looking forward to strengthening ties.
IN ADDITION to the IDEX confusion and the visa-free issue, there was also the postponement of Netanyahu’s planned trip to the UAE. Announced on February 3, it was then postponed on February 4. Like IDEX, the decision could have simply been to delay the trip once the airport closure was announced. Instead, the appearance of confusion, which may relate to domestic politics and the upcoming election, lead to questions.
With new ties there are always going to be initial complexities. However one of the issues that Israeli companies faced early on when they went to the UAE in November and December was a cultural difference in methods of doing business. According to many who were interviewed, the Israeli desire to move quickly was met with a norm in the UAE that preferred slower trust-building measures.
Israel has earned a lot of respect in the region for its ability to build a thriving economy, as well as its innovations on numerous levels. Part of the system that enabled that is the same system that sometimes appears to zigzag on policies and plans. The same flexibility that leads to innovation also leads to confusion about what might happen tomorrow. On the roller coaster that already underpins UAE-Israel ties, this has been one of the themes.