The Emiratis’ message: Peace between the people

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: A country without a free press is not accustomed to Israeli journalists’ chutzpah and demands for radical transparency at all times.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020 (photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020
(photo credit: Lahav Harkov)
The Israeli media delegation to the United Arab Emirates had a packed schedule for its less than 24 hours in Abu Dhabi – but not with the kinds of events one may expect from covering a government delegation for normalization talks.
Our hosts designed our visit to send a very specific message to the Israeli public about the kind of peace it wants with Israel. While we in Israel have been very fixated on F-35 jets and working together against Iran, the Emiratis wanted to relay a message of tolerance and of a connection between peoples.
That was already implied when the UAE and US did not want a Defense Ministry delegation to take part in the trip, but we got the message more overtly in our quick jaunt to the Emirati capital.
When we arrived from the airport to our hotel, where much of the government delegation was staying as well, we were given about an hour and a half to get refreshed before the tour bus was set to take us to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. But the government officials started working right away – which meant we journalists felt it was time for us to start working, too.
We quickly learned that in the Emirates, discretion is the name of the game. A country without a free press is not accustomed to Israeli journalists’ chutzpah and demands for radical transparency at all times. And, in fact, our minder from the American Embassy told us repeatedly to “be nice.”
Still, when some of us persisted in our demands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokeswoman Shir Cohen, who was in the UAE though her boss was not, finagled us into a few rooms to see the government working groups’ roundtables.
We only got to see a few rooms, with about a minute in each room, and we weren’t allowed to take photos or quote anyone – a recurring theme on this trip. In each room, there was a different topic of discussion, such as health, aviation, space or foreign policy, with a small group of Israeli officials sitting across from their UAE counterparts. Some of the discussions seemed to be very basic, getting-to-know-you type talk. Others, like health, where there was cooperation even before normalization was announced, seemed to be more in depth.
TO OUR dismay, the briefing we were promised by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat was postponed indefinitely, because the meetings went longer than expected. Then, we were whisked away to the Louvre.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, established in 2017, licenses the name of the original Louvre in Paris, and borrows from the collections of a dozen French museums, including Musee D’Orsay, Centre Pompidou and, as we would soon discover, the Jewish Museum.
Our tour guide said the idea behind the design of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibit was universalism: that people around the world have much in common. The museum is arranged chronologically, not regionally, displaying art from around the world in a given time period in a way that shows the similarities in styles and themes.
Of course, pre-modern art tends to have strong religious themes, and those were present in the museum. Along with Islamic art, there were Buddhas and sculptures of Jesus and Mary – and Jewish articles, as well. The headstone of a Jewish man from France was displayed near headstones having text in Arabic. Pentateuch books from France and Yemen were displayed next to Muslim and Christian texts.
We were also shown a model of the planned “Abrahamic Family House,” a complex with a mosque, a church and a synagogue, planned to open in 2022.
Asked about how this diverse religious art – and any displays of the human form – are received in a conservative Muslim society, two tour guides gave the same answer: This museum was designed to educate toward and display tolerance, and that it was not a controversial move.
Their answers were so similar that it seemed to me that it was something they were told to say – and yet, the museum and its goal speak for themselves.
THEN CAME dinner at a hall in the Louvre, where two or three reporters were put at each table with local journalists and officials. There were opening remarks, and then we got to speak to people at our table.
The guests were obviously carefully selected, but it was still interesting to get an unscripted perspective. We were once again urged to be sensitive to the local emphasis on discretion. But in broad strokes, it seemed that these Emiratis were as enthusiastic about the new ties as we were.
One official said we should not compare peace with the UAE to that with Jordan or Egypt, because this is going to be peace with the people who truly want to get to know us, and see a benefit to their younger generation in having ties with us. He framed normalization as part of the battle against not only violent extremism, but ideological extremism.
Asked by an Israeli reporter whether stopping annexation in the West Bank to help the Palestinians was the real impetus behind the agreement, one official said it may have impacted the timing, but with years of steps toward normalization, it surely was not the reason.
The UAE needs to do things in its own interest and not listen to others’ diktats, she said. We all agreed that this could give other countries the courage to take the plunge, as well, and debated whether Bahrain or Oman would be next.
On the non-political side, two of my interlocutors told me they have Israeli friends from studies abroad and are excited to be able to visit them. They told me about friends who study Hebrew. One asked about hiking, and I told her all about the Israel Trail and water hikes in the North; she told me about camping in the UAE’s countryside.
The impression we were given was that “warm peace” wasn’t just a slogan Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was throwing around in a press conference.
The next morning, as we handed our suitcases over to El Al security, heads of the local Jewish community showed up with Torah scrolls for morning prayers. It was a Tuesday, so a Torah wasn’t necessary, but they wanted to show us the inscription in Arabic on its covering, which honored prominent Dubai businessman Muhammad Ali Al-Abbas, “who inspired his friends and his country and his generation through his vision and personality.”
When I said something about getting an impression of tolerance from the previous night’s event, Ross Kriel, president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, reassured me that “it’s not just an impression.”
THAT MORNING, we weren’t told the schedule for the day, but we were told that the reporters for American media outlets based in Israel were going to be separated from the Israelis. We quickly rooted out that CNN, NPR, AP and the others were going to an American Air Force base, and that White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner would be there with them, while we were going to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
The mosque was breathtaking, with mother-of-pearl flowers on the ornate floors and columns, massive chandeliers and colorful Persian carpets. The female journalists brought scarves to cover our hair, but we were given robes to wear to cover our arms and legs.
Admittedly, it didn’t feel great to wear more layers in the sweltering heat, but it’s understandable to have to show respect at a religious site – just as I would in Israel – especially since we could wear what we wanted everywhere else.
But when I found out the plan for the morning meant I would be doing the less “newsy” thing, it sparked mixed feelings. We were in Abu Dhabi to work, not to tour, so it was frustrating. But it was also exciting that in less than 24 hours in town, we would get to see such a famous and beautiful site.
It was at that point that it clicked for me what the government of the UAE, which organized these tours, wanted to show Israelis via its media. Between leaving defense delegation meetings for another time, the Louvre’s interfaith emphasis, a dinner with friendly locals and a visit to the Grand Mosque – a religious site and one of the top tourist sites in town – it was very clear.
They wanted to try to make peace between people. They wanted to show us a positive view of what they are all about: their hospitality to foreigners and tolerance of other religions.
Of course, we all know that the UAE is not a democracy and that tolerance is at the will of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed.
SOON AFTER visiting the mosque, we got an honest answer from a tour guide at Qasr Al Hosn, an 18th-century fortress turned history museum. Asked what she thinks about ties with Israel, she said, “I trust our leaders to make the right choice.” Asked what people on the street think of the deal, she said, “We follow our leaders blindly.” And then a higher-up shushed her, saying she’s not a spokesperson.
The visit to Qasr Al Hosn was a pleasant surprise, since its director Salama Al Shamsi had sat next to me at dinner the night before. It was interesting to see artifacts from when Abu Dhabi was a fishing village with an economy relying on pearling. The museum, open since 2018, was very modern and beautifully designed, like much else in the UAE.
Qasr Al Hosn also gave some historical context to the local diplomatic culture, highlighting an emphasis on diplomacy.
Sheikh Zayed the First, Abu Dhabi’s leader in the late 19th century, “knew there was more to the success and security of the community than strength of arms,” one sign read. Under his leadership, “Abu Dhabi thrived, becoming the most powerful, prosperous and respected of the coastal states.”
And that seems to be the way the UAE operates and thrives to this day.