Tourism in Abu Dhabi: A new Middle East

Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest and the most influential among the seven emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates.

THE SHEIK Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world’s largest mosques and can host more than 40,000 worshipers. (photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
THE SHEIK Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world’s largest mosques and can host more than 40,000 worshipers.
(photo credit: UDI SHAHAM)
For more than 26 years Israelis were waiting, and when it finally came – after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 – all at once another three countries established overt diplomatic relations with Israel: The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.
But unlike the first two and the last two, the newly established relations with the Emirates is not merely formal and for strategic purposes only, but it is what Israelis call a “warm peace.” On August 13, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Zayed and US President Donald Trump announced the move, an influx of UAE social media accounts expressed unconditional love for their new ally in the Levant.
And that was exactly the feeling among the first nongovernmental Israeli delegation to visit the UAE when it arrived in Abu Dhabi last month.
“Welcome to your second home,” was the most common phrase repeated by their hosts multiple times, including by Abu Dhabi’s International Airport director, who was the first Emirati they saw after departing the plane.
While it’s still unclear when direct flights between Israel and the UAE will start, it is safe to say that things are moving in the right direction.
On October 18, the Israeli and the UAE transportation ministries announced an agreement between the two countries that will allow commercial flights. In the first stage, there will be 28 weekly flights between the two countries, an average of four flights a day that will be operated by both Israeli and Emirati carriers.
On October 20, while the Israeli delegation was visiting Abu Dhabi, a governmental Emirati delegation was in Israel signing economic agreements. One of the agreements was for visa-free entrance to both countries, which will allow the tourism industry to blossom.
The first aviation company that jumped on this opportunity was Etihad Airways, which brought the Israeli tourism delegation. Etihad, which means “a union,” is the UAE’s national aviation company with its headquarters in the capital Abu Dhabi. It was established in 2003, and now flies to more than 120 cargo and passenger destinations worldwide.
Besides offering tour packages that will include city tours by Etihad’s daughter-company Hala Abu Dhabi, the Emirati carrier is offering the Israeli tourist a unique benefit: a two-night stopover in the capital city included in the price of one ticket. This means that Israeli tourists flying east will be able enjoy one more destination on the same ticket.
Nehama Ronen, the CEO of Maman Group, which facilitated the tourism delegation’s trip, met with senior Etihad officials during the visit. Ronen told the officials, “Maman Group is ready to operate a flying route between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi as soon as possible,” and added that a decision regarding the operation of flights is expected soon.
Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest and the most influential among the seven emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates, which includes Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, and the well-known Dubai. The UAE’s federal cooperation allows each emirate to operate independently in the fields of economy, health, education, internal security and welfare, and requires collaboration in defense and diplomacy.
While Dubai has been a tourist attraction for years with its famous skyline that includes Burj Khalifah, Burj al-Arab and its artificial palm-tree islands, the capital Abu Dhabi has just as much to offer.
As the home of some 200 nationalities, Abu Dhabi brands itself as the city of peace and tolerance. During the visit, the Israeli delegation was taken to see the site of what will eventually be the Abrahamic Family House, a compound that will include a synagogue, a mosque and a church, and will have an education center to promote religious pluralism.
THESE DAYS, Abu Dhabi is maintaining strict measures to prevent coronavirus. All tourists are tested upon their arrival to the country and required to enter a 14-day quarantine. Many tourist attractions are closed as well.
However, a bus tour of Abu Dhabi provided a glimpse of the unique sites the city has to offer.
Among them is the famous Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque. Located on the city’s main island, it is one of the world’s largest mosques and can host over 40,000 worshipers. It is named after Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of Abu Dhabi and the UAE who is considered the founder of the Emirati union.
Other major attractions include a local branch on Saadiyat Island of Paris’s Louvre Museum and New York’s Guggenheim; glorious royal palaces scattered throughout the city; Ferrari World, Water World, and Warner Bros World theme parks; the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall; gigantic shopping centers and malls; and the famous jeep tours through sand dunes located outside the city.
Abu Dhabi is considered a safe traveling destination for tourists. Ali al-Sheiba, the executive director of tourism and marketing in Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, told The Jerusalem Post that authorities are aware of the concerns Israelis and Jews have regarding their travels overseas, and stressed that they are doing everything possible to ensure their visits are safe.
Al-Sheiba also addressed fears of traveling in a Muslim country in which Sharia (Islamic law) is the official legal system.
“We are a modern city and we accept everyone,” he said. “We have modern laws. Even with alcohol consumption, for example, everyone can drink.... You can consume alcoholic beverages at home, in nightclubs, in the hotel and restaurants, as long as you are over the age of 21.
“In terms of dress codes, if you would go here to the beach you could see women wearing bikinis. We have no restricting guidelines for women. They are free to do everything.”
However, it is recommended to understand and follow the local culture and be respectful to local traditions.
The Israeli delegation was hosted at the Saadiyat Rotana Resort and Villas, located on Saadiyat Island, one of some 200 islands that comprise the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The hotel is on the beach, which is also a natural habitat with an abundance of animal life and a nesting area for turtles that come twice a year to lay their eggs.
The resort appears to be waiting with open arms for Israeli tourists.
General manager Fabrice Ducry told the Post that as soon as the peace deal was declared, the hotel began preparing for Israeli tourists and made its kitchens kosher.
“After the deal was announced, we rushed to do some homework on how to welcome the Israeli guests so they could feel welcomed like any other culture visiting the UAE,” he said. “We wanted them to have the touch of home away from home, and kosher food was among the big topics.
“We got in touch with the local rabbi here in the UAE, and he supported us and guided us in the process.”
Accommodation prices in Abu Dhabi vary according to the level of the hotel, but in general, the city’s tourist venues could be labeled as “affordable luxury.” For instance, the average price of a room at the five-star Saadiyat Rotana Resort and Villas is around NIS 700 per night.
The peace agreement between Israel and the UAE will not only bring Emirati investment money into Israel, it will also bring Israeli tourism to the Persian Gulf. While Turkey had suffered a decline in Israeli tourism in the past decade due to political tensions between the two countries, the political climate of the UAE has allowed it to fill that gap.
Last month’s visit to the UAE by the Israeli delegation was historic because of the first commercial flight between the two countries. It also marked the beginning of a new age in Israeli tourism.
The author was a guest of Etihad Airways and Maman Group.