For decades, observant Jewish residents of the United Arab Emirates stuck to a vegetarian diet because no kosher meats were available in the Muslim-majority country that, along with its Gulf neighbours, maintained a diplomatic isolation of Israel.
While Israeli passport holders were not able to settle in the UAE, over time the Jewish community — just a few thousand of the 9m population — established itself with government backing. In recent years, the provision of kosher food and other elements of daily life has become easier.
A local abattoir now slaughters 1,000 chickens a week in line with kosher rites, which share similarities with Islamic halal requirements. A ‘secret’ synagogue in a villa in an upmarket neighbourhood in Dubai has been joined by a second place of worship.
In the wake of last month’s deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel, efforts are being stepped up in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of Israeli and Jewish tourists. The oil-rich capital Abu Dhabi this week instructed hotels to seek kosher certification for handling meals and to designate an area in kitchens for their preparation.
“I am excited to help facilitate kosher food for everyone coming to the UAE,” said Rabbi Levi Duchman, 27, the only rabbi living in the country. “Abu Dhabi is really opening doors to the wider Jewish community from around the world — they are saying come and eat your food here.”
The deal between the two countries — which have long had covert business and security links and whose new alliance was forged through common distrust of regional foe Iran — has laid the foundations for an expansion of trade, investment and tourism. Further cementing the accord — and in a sign of Washington’s role in sealing it — the UAE’s foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will shake hands on the White House lawn next week.
The UAE has shrugged off criticism from regional rivals Turkey and Iran, as well as from Palestinians, who see it as a betrayal of their aspirations to have a viable state.
The so-called Abraham Accord enjoys genuine popular support, especially among youths less engaged in what they see as the Middle East’s old arguments.
There is, however, still significant domestic opposition among those expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. A group of exiled Emirati activists have issued a statement denouncing the pact. But the UAE’s zero-tolerance approach to dissent, including tough cyber crime laws that discourage free speech, has ensured limited overt criticism of the deal.
Even those opposed to normalisation remain sanguine about welcoming Jewish and even Israeli tourists to a country that has prided itself on an open-door approach.
“We want to do business with anyone, no matter their religion,” said one Dubai business owner. “We might hate what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, but we aren’t going to be lectured by Turkey when they have had relations [with Israel] forever.”
A backlog of deals across various sectors, including technology, healthcare, agriculture and aviation, will quickly come to fruition, said Solly Wolf, president of the Jewish Community Centre in Dubai. Many Israelis and Emiratis have already contacted him to help facilitate new business, said Mr Wolf, who moved to the UAE two decades ago.
“These deals were happening before, but obviously with lots of difficulties,” said the textiles businessman. “Now it is officially open and on board so contracts will be much easier.”
While accessing Israeli technology — from security to agritech — is of prime interest for the UAE, many also view the deal as a chance to boost a tourism sector that has been battered by coronavirus. Hoteliers, badly hit by the pandemic, expect a wave of Jewish and Israeli visitors into the Gulf’s commercial and travel hub once direct flights open.
Ross Kriel, a South African lawyer who is also president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, said tour operators have already begun organising trips to the UAE, with expectations that annual visitors from Israel and the diaspora could reach 150,000 to 300,000 once Covid-19 restrictions ease.
Among the hotels preparing for these visitors are the state-owned Emirates Palace and Dubai’s Armani Hotel, located at the base of the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa.
The Armani is jointly managed by Emaar, the developer of Burj Khalifa, whose chairman, Mohamed Alabbar, is close to UAE leaders, including Abu Dhabi’s crown prince. Mr Alabbar also played a prominent role in the US-organised “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain last year, which foreshadowed the Israel-UAE deal.
“Based on information from tour operators, Israeli interest in Dubai and the UAE is huge — that will translate into business for all and we want to take our fair share,” said Kamal Naamani, managing director for hospitality operations at Habtoor, a major Dubai conglomerate, which is also planning kosher options for guests at its hotels.
That interest is already evident in the US. “There is lots of excitement — I was just speaking to someone who wants to hire several hotels in Dubai for Passover [end-March 2021] for American tourists,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, who runs the world’s largest kosher certification agency, Orthodox Union Kosher. “The crown prince has given instructions that for Passover he wants hotels to be full with Israelis in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” he said. “We are going to have to gear up.”