Pluralism in a Gulf state

The United Arab Emirates should open its doors to Judaism and Israel as wide as it does to the rest of the world.

uae president 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
uae president 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In a precarious neighborhood of double-speak and radical stirrings, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has fashioned itself as a regional hub, a Western-style capitalist haven offering twice the glamour and no taxes. The UAE, its advertisers insist, is more than just a Disneyland for the Arab community. As host to international gatherings, global enterprise and Western institutions, the UAE is open to the world - economically, socially and culturally. When an American Jewish Committee delegation arrived in Dubai recently for an Education Ministry-sponsored women's leadership conference - AJC's third visit in a year - the promise of social and cultural openness permeated our trip. In private meetings and conference gatherings, we were greeted with assurances that the UAE is open to all, including the American Jewish community. In government offices, lecture halls, round table discussions and mosques, we felt welcome. For our hosts, perhaps this notion was instinctive. Freedom of religion, in accordance with local customs, is constitutionally assured, and for the most part respected by local authorities. The government tightly controls Islamic practices. Religious leaders are not free agents. Imams deliver closely monitored sermons with messages set by the government to reflect its moderate political agenda. The government insists on a policy of tolerance toward non-Muslims, and according to the State Department's latest Religious Freedom Report, practices minimal interference in religious activities. The UAE boasts dozens of churches and parochial schools, as well as a small number of Hindu temples. Although certainly not organized, and understandably hesitant to identify publicly, Jews from many countries reside in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, joining with Parsi, Bahai and Sikh in the "5 percent other" category of religious affiliations. UAE message boards are sprinkled with notices from Jewish residents and visitors seeking minyans and kosher meals. TOLERANCE IS bred from necessity, given that native Emiratis make up no more than 20 percent of the local population, while dozens of nationalities in the expatriate community comprise the majority of the nation's 4.5 million residents. Peaceful coexistence - so as not to stir unrest or jeopardize the ruling minority - requires a cautious, permissive, approach. Religion, like politics, is not a topic commonly discussed in the UAE. Non-officials, particularly expatriates, are uncomfortable with the topic. "Don't ask, don't tell," explained one Zayed University professor. "Your religion, like your sexual preference, is no one's business but your own." It is perhaps surprising then that the AJC delegation, the sole Jewish representation at the women's conference, was given a platform to engage publicly on the issue of faith. While we refrained from advertising our presence for security reasons, we openly conducted a workshop on interfaith and intercultural dialogue, in which Muslim, Jewish and Christian women from around the world shared their experiences as women of faith. Under the watchful eye of conference organizers, but without intervention, the UAE took one more small, though significant, step toward actively promoting pluralism. For a Jewish group traveling in the Arab world, addressing matters of faith is not easy. While the UAE has taken steps in the past decade to counter radical ideologies and anti-Semitism - including the 2002 closing of the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up, a think tank notorious for its anti-Semitic publications and programming - the enduring image of the Jewish and Zionist "enemy" remains all too common across the Arab world. Anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant editorials and images still appear in UAE-backed media outlets. While this occurs with decreasing frequency, and pales in comparison to the messages of hatred and incitement common elsewhere in the region, it is counterproductive to the UAE's drive for openness. AS THE UAE prepares its next generation of leadership to compete in an increasingly globalized world, it must prepare them to engage their neighbors. On this visit, I was struck not by the number of women who had never before met a Jew, but by the number who complained of an inability to access information about Judaism. Etisalat, the UAE's exclusive Internet provider, sometimes blocks Websites containing religious expression, including Judaism. Jewish leaders are routinely excluded from interfaith conversations, including a significant symposium last year on religious tolerance. World religions are not taught in schools, though clearly public interest exists. The UAE, so adept at connecting with the world, can surely remove the filters preventing interaction with others. If the UAE is, in fact, "open to the world" as it claims, then it must be open to the entire world. That includes not only the Jewish people but also the State of Israel. Although there have been disappointments on this road, a process has begun. As the UAE extends its reach and truly opens up, it will find that global institutions like AJC, dedicated to the cause of regional peace, are ready partners in the promotion of reconciliation, cooperation and security in the Middle East. The writer is Arabian Peninsula Project Manager for the American Jewish Committee.