Meet the UAE’s first ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Al Khaja

Exclusive interview: UAE Ambassador Mohammed Al Khaja talks about the Abraham Accords, emerging business opportunities, and the new Middle East.

  Cutting the ribbon  with President Isaac Herzog at the  July opening of the UAE Embassy, in  Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Cutting the ribbon with President Isaac Herzog at the July opening of the UAE Embassy, in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

‘Many people I’ve sat with... from ex-government to government officials and others, have tears in their eyes; they cannot believe the UAE Embassy is here in Tel Aviv. They didn’t imagine it would happen in their lifetime,” says United Arab Emirates Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja.

He speaks with pride and warmth about the growing relations between Israel and the UAE. 

It has been a momentous year since the Abraham Accords were signed, and Al Khaja is the UAE’s first ambassador to Israel, a unique and historic role.

“I wonder why peace or normalization seemed to be a dream,” he says, pondering the historic nature of our times.

What seemed like a fantasy has now become normal, and it feels natural for this peace to exist between the two countries.

“I think our mission for our kids is to have a vision. For some, what is happening today is a dream. I believe we should never limit our people. This is the message we try to convey. We should work on realizing that and make our youth feel it. The youth need to feel that these developments are good things,” he affirms.

Relations between Israel and the UAE have developed rapidly. While there were suggestions over the years that Israel might improve relations with Bahrain and the UAE, the Abraham Accords announced in August 2020 took the world by surprise. A month later, on September 15, the agreement was signed in Washington with the UAE, Israel and Bahrain.

Companies from Israel were already doing business with partners from the UAE, and soon banking agreements were being ironed out, and dozens of flights a week were announced. By the end of the year, some 50,000 people had flown from Tel Aviv to Dubai.

The pandemic halted some flights, but by December 2020 Israel had exported some $200 million in products to the Gulf, and within a year almost $600m. in trade had been done between Israel and the UAE.

The Dubai Expo 2020 opened this year, a year late due to the pandemic, and Israel sent a large delegation to participate. In addition, Israeli and UAE companies continue to announce partnerships. Israel Aerospace Industries and Edge announced an agreement to make unmanned surface vessels, an example of how futuristic technologies are connecting the Start-Up Nation and advanced technologies in the UAE.

 UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ambassador  Mohamed Al Khaja: ‘For some, what is  happening today is a dream.’  (credit: UAE Embassy in Israel) UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja: ‘For some, what is happening today is a dream.’ (credit: UAE Embassy in Israel)

“We are focusing on the positive and how similar we – Israel and the UAE – are. We are working now on a free trade agreement,” says the ambassador.

The UAE Embassy is located at the same location as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Its flag flies outside the building, which is a 10-minute walk from the beach. The location, in a building devoted to commerce, represents the potential of the UAE-Israel relationship.

The ambassador wants to focus on the positive and opportunities. While there are voices in the region and globally who may have opposed the Abraham Accords, or countries that continue to threaten regional peace, he is all about talking cultural and positive connections.

“There is much more we have in common than what separates us. It is only hate and extreme narratives that keep us apart. We need to proactively ignore it [fight it]... we need to focus on the youth and future generations.”

AL KHAJA is a high-energy personality. He loves sports and is constantly meeting officials. On November 21 he met with Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, and on Friday he was doing a jog with locals from Jaffa Port to Tel Aviv Port.

 AT THE opening of the UAE Embassy,  flanking the ambassador: Tel Aviv  Mayor Ron Huldai (2nd L), President  Isaac Herzog (4th L) and Gabi  Ashkenazi (2nd R), in Tel Aviv, July  14.  (credit: MIRIAM ASTER/FLASH90) AT THE opening of the UAE Embassy, flanking the ambassador: Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (2nd L), President Isaac Herzog (4th L) and Gabi Ashkenazi (2nd R), in Tel Aviv, July 14. (credit: MIRIAM ASTER/FLASH90)

“We are sharing the region; we all belong to this place. There are huge global challenges arising, such as climate change and geopolitics. We should be thinking and working together to make a future that is better than what we can dream of. Our region is the cradle of civilization,” he says.

To make the future better together requires people-to-people connections. However, when states normalize relations, bureaucracy can sometimes set up hurdles because there are visas to be obtained, and with Israel there are always security checks to be cleared. Al Khaja says that the UAE signed a deal with an airport services company to ease the transit through the airport for Emiratis.

He points out that the UAE passport is routinely ranked one of the best in the world, meaning that citizens holding that passport can travel easily to most countries.

Yet Israel often viewed the region and parts of the world through the lens of threats – due to terrorism challenges. Israel has faced tragedies in the past where extremists sought to target Israeli aircraft and even flew into Tel Aviv. One such example is the 1973 Lod Airport massacre perpetrated by members of the Japanese Red Army, working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in which 26 people were killed, including eight Israeli citizens.

The new ties with countries like the UAE mean opening up to the region and seeing it with new eyes. 

 AT A ceremony for the first  commercial passenger  flight from Abu Dhabi  to Israel, at Ben-Gurion  Airport, April 6.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) AT A ceremony for the first commercial passenger flight from Abu Dhabi to Israel, at Ben-Gurion Airport, April 6. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

One of the issues last year was that while Israelis were going in large numbers to Dubai, very few Emiratis came to Israel. The ambassador clarifies that today Emiratis are coming. He says his father recently came to Israel.

“We have visa-free travel,” he notes.

The winter in the UAE is a pleasant time of year, so the ambassador expects that Emiratis will want to come to Israel when their ideal season begins to heat up in the spring. That means by April there may be more traffic in the other direction.

A business forum will soon see some 80 people from the UAE attend. “This will be the first forum of this nature, with two UAE ministers heading the delegation. There is excitement. We’re also focusing on social, cultural and other activities that can bring our people together, such as sports.”

Indeed, sports are a big passion for the ambassador. He enjoys talking about Padel Tennis, a sport similar to tennis and squash. Athletics is one way to bring people together.

 A MAN waves a giant UAE flag  outside the US ambassador’s  residence in Jerusalem, August 19,  2020. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) A MAN waves a giant UAE flag outside the US ambassador’s residence in Jerusalem, August 19, 2020. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“The essence of this relationship and making it sustainable, healthy, organic, is the people-to-people relationship. I believe when you put together an Emirati with an Israeli, the chemistry is there. I am focusing on connecting the people,” he says. “The new generation here and in the UAE are more pragmatic; they share the same instruments and are proactively going after good jobs and better standards of living.”

As Israel and the UAE discuss a free trade agreement, which the ambassador says will soon see its second round of talks, there are many opportunities emerging for Israelis and Emiratis to work together.

“We’re currently working on the upcoming business forum. We are doing this with the Economy Ministry and Start-Up Nation Central, and with a proper follow-up mechanism to tap into different sectors, focusing on small and medium enterprises that directly affect the youth and entrepreneurs. It’s not hard to broker a deal when everyone wants it or needs it.”

WITH 37 weekly flights between Israel and the UAE, trade is bustling, and people are traveling back and forth.

“There are no borders,” the ambassador says. “I can fly in and out of the UAE on the same day. It’s possible and doable.”

 SPORT LOVER: With then-president  Reuven Rivlin ahead of the awarding  of the 2020–2021 Israel State Cup,  at Bloomfield Stadium in June. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) SPORT LOVER: With then-president Reuven Rivlin ahead of the awarding of the 2020–2021 Israel State Cup, at Bloomfield Stadium in June. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, this ease of connection means the business community in the UAE can now fly just a few hours to do serious business in the region, whereas in the past they might have had to fly five, seven or 10 hours to business hubs in Europe, the US or Asia.

This is a big deal because the UAE is a huge business hub. The country is bursting with opportunities and has gathered together people from all over the world.

Israel was often a travel cul-de-sac. People didn’t fly to Israel and then onward to other countries in the region, because Israel lacked relations and cheap flights to the countries it did have relations with. Now the economy of scale that the UAE brings to the picture, combined with Israel’s innovators in hi-tech and other sectors, can partner well. 

“In Israel everyone has an idea and wants to push those ideas, and they are great ideas,” the ambassador asserts. For businesspeople in the UAE, they find it easier here to discuss ideas, he says.

“We try to support when necessary. We are looking at some anchor projects, maybe soon in the region,” the envoy says.

 IN KEFFIYEH in his Twitter avatar (@AmbAlKhaja). (credit: TWITTER) IN KEFFIYEH in his Twitter avatar (@AmbAlKhaja). (credit: TWITTER)

What might those projects entail? Israel is rapidly expanding its transportation network, with new light rail projects and highways. The UAE has expertise in building quickly and in a desert environment.

While some other countries are concerned about supply chains and other issues in the global economy, Al Khaja says there is a lot of potential for Israel and the UAE.

“We have the ability to connect the world with Asia, Europe and Africa. The UAE is one of the largest hubs for commerce, trade and services.”

He looks forward to the potential success that can be achieved together with Israel on a variety of levels, including “if we manage to connect UAE seaports and airports with ports here.”

He points out that air freight is fully booked now between the countries, and he expects the overall flights between the countries to double in the coming year.

There are challenges ahead. A pipeline deal that would have seen oil from the UAE shipped via Eilat and then overland to the Mediterranean has seen calls to cancel the deal due to environmental concerns.

The deal is between private companies, he notes.

“At end of the day it’s up to the Israeli government to impose its regulations or policies, if there are any environmental breaches.

“UAE, for over four decades, has been successfully investing in various sectors around the world. We look for investments that are long-term and mutually beneficial, that create new jobs and are feasible,” says the ambassador. 

THE BEST way to counter any threats that are critical of the Abraham Accords is to show the fruits the peace deal is bringing, says Al Khaja. 

“The Dubai Expo is good news. We need to focus on all the good things happening in light of this partnership. When you say ‘Middle East,’ the first image that crosses people’s minds is unfortunately negative. We are here to change this rhetoric.”

Critics of the region or of the peace sometimes include people in the West who may even be at think tanks but are not directly engaging with the new era, the ambassador states. Some of those who offer criticism of the new peace haven’t been in the region for years.

“Religion was not meant to divide people, and it is disappointing that it is often hijacked by individuals or groups that prey on uneducated, poor, hopeless people,” says Al Khaja.

He tells a parable that evokes how countries and people can overcome difficulties they have faced in recent years.

“We live in the desert, and sometimes I find trees in the middle of nowhere, and I ask why is [this tree] here? Did it want to be here? Did it choose to be here? But it does whatever it can to survive. So we see that in some countries, they do what they can to survive. We should ask how do we make the region greener.”

“[The prophet says,] be optimistic, expect good things, and good things will happen to you,” the ambassador points out. “It’s obvious no one can impose something from the outside. Whatever happens, it must happen from the people in the region. If the others are open for dialogue, then it is my greatest hope that we will continue to rise up to seeking even more opportunities. The only way forward is through dialogue and understanding and setting new expectations with a pragmatic approach.” 

He is here to help bring people together, he stresses, and is doing that “through joint research initiatives, student exchanges, business and sports. 

“Hopefully we can make sure everyone has fun in the process.”