Officials: Visa-Free Israel-UAE pact historic – although familiar

Travel treaties open up skies for Israeli, Emirati travelers

A United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag waves alongside an Israeli flag (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
A United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag waves alongside an Israeli flag
Israel and the United Arab Emirates made history last week by signing a visa exemption treaty, the first such agreement between an Arab nation and the Jewish state.
While Israel has similar pacts with more than 100 countries, border officials and travel security experts explained the differences and challenges the treaty could pose.
“We’re not there yet; this still has to go through several stages of ratification before it comes into effect,” Sabin Hadad, spokeswoman for the Israeli Population and Migration Authority, told The Media Line.
“It might take up to two or three months,” she noted. “For now, Emiratis will still need to apply for a visa at one of our consulates abroad.”
The unprecedented move was announced during last week’s one-day visit by a UAE delegation to Israel. The summit, while lasting only five hours, marked the first official diplomatic foray there by Emirati representatives.
Last month, Israel and the UAE signed the Abraham Accords, which formalize the normalization of diplomatic and trade relations between the two countries.
Pini Schiff, who directed security operations at Ben-Gurion Airport before serving as deputy director general of the Israel Airports Authority, believes the systems and protocols currently in place are sufficient to handle the addition of the UAE to the visa-free list.
“I don’t see any outstanding risk from this, not at all,” he told The Media Line.
“For the past 73 years, people of all nationalities have entered Israel. We have our own resources to monitor potential threats or travelers who pose some level of danger,” he said.
“Basically, there is no real difference if the person entering the country is from an Arab state or European. The protocols are essentially identical,” he explains.
Left unsaid is the fact that the nationals of Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel has long had diplomatic relations, must apply for a visa before traveling to Israel.
Hadad says all the necessary security assessments were conducted before signing the deal.
“Of course, the security authorities expressed their opinion about this,” she said. “Everybody involved had their say and reached the conclusion that we can go through with this.”
The pact between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi will be identical to all other visa-free agreements, the Interior Ministry told The Media Line. It will allow citizens of the UAE to enter Israel for tourism purposes only for up to three months.
“This is standard. We will treat Emirati tourists just like American ones,” Hadad promised.
“But just like with the US and other countries, there may be exceptions,” she added. “If we identify someone as a security threat or for any other reason, we can decide to ban their entry.”
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of foreign relations, international economic development and tourism, notes the symbolism of the agreement.
“While it’s true that screening people entering Israel for the first time at the airport may pose a security challenge, this shows mutual trust. That’s very important,” she told The Media Line.
Hassan-Nahoum, who founded the UAE-Israel Business Council, has noticed an enormous spike in Emirati interest in traveling to Israel and dealing with its companies.
“The willingness to cooperate with Israel is very high,” she said. “I see it at both the government and business levels.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised the landmark deal would “significantly enhance tourism and business between the two nations.” The visa exemption, along with the dozens of weekly flights scheduled to connect the countries, will ensure easy and cheap travel, he said.
“This is a big advantage, sure,” agrees Schiff. “Add that to the fact that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are allowing Israeli planes to fly [through their airspace] and you get huge savings of time and fuel.”
Schiff, who represented the Israeli government in similar air travel negotiations before the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, stressed that there is no need to adjust flight security when traveling to or over Gulf states, which until recently refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
“Israel has more or less the same strategy or thinking applied when flying over country X and country Y. It’s not like we now have to sit and think this over,” he noted.
While Israel has announced it will normalize ties with Bahrain and Sudan, for now it has reached a visa exemption agreement only with the UAE. But Hadad believes it is only a matter of time before the treaty is expanded.
“I believe Bahrain will happen shortly. Sudan I’m not sure. We’ve only just begun [discussions],” she said. “But it usually comes together, sort of a gesture of goodwill.”
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