American Jewish leaders find friends in the Emirates

“The United Arab Emirates can have an expanding role with the State of Israel. They are a country that is trying to counter the forces of extremism,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. 

By: Alex Traiman,

A large delegation of American Jewish leaders spent two days in United Arab Emirates this week in search of moderate Arab counterparts working to fight against the forces of radical Islamic extremism, and who are also willing to improve private and public relations with Israel.

“The United Arab Emirates are a country that can have an expanding role with the State of Israel. They are a country that is trying to counter the forces of extremism,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the group that organized the delegation.

UAE ‘seems part of the solution, not the problem’

According to B’nai B’rith CEO and executive vice President Dan Mariaschin, “through its realistic worldview on the threats to stability posed by both state and non-state actors in the Middle East and the [Persian] Gulf, and with its proactive participation with the U.S. and others in countering those threats, the UAE seems very much a part of the solution—and not part of the problem—in the region.”

The group visited with businessmen, government ministers and influential sheikhs, including the Minister of State for Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. Participants also learned about some of the Emirates’ Western infrastructure, such as a U.S. military base, in addition to private infrastructure, including a campus of New York University and a branch of the renowned Cleveland Clinic academic medical hospital.

“We engaged in serious dialogue, with long conversations, some that lasted an hour-and-a-half each. We asked tough questions. Our interlocutors saw that we are an informed and influential community,” said Hoenlein, who noted that the government ministers they met with each stressed the potential of the relationship between the Emirates and Israel.

Conversations focused on major threats faced in the region, including Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear power and a regional hegemon. “We dealt with issues that affect Israeli security and regional stability,” reported Hoenlein. Topics discussed include growing extremism in Yemen, Qatar and the Gaza Strip, as well as the ongoing inability of Israelis and Palestinians to reach a formal peace agreement with Palestinians—an issue of concern to the Emirati leaders.

‘A welcome eye-opener’

The delegation also raised their own ideological concerns with their hosts, including combatting extremism embedded in the education system, Holocaust denial and preserving Jewish culture in Arab lands. The Emirates houses a nascent Jewish community of several hundred Jews.

“The Emirates’ openness to other cultures, and ‎their priority to bringing tolerance throughout their society, was truly a welcome eye-opener,” said Cheryl Fishbein, chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a member of the Conference of Presidents executive council. “The people were warm to us as Americans and as Jews. I am optimistic about increasing our friendship with them.”

“We are working on building a relationship that can be sustained,” Hoenlein told JNS, while cautiously noting that “only in time will we see whether the inroads we made on this trip will pay dividends.”

One such measuring stick will be whether or not the Emirates will accept an Israeli delegation to the upcoming World Expo 2020 in Dubai, something the hosts said they were open to considering.

The group also met with the U.S. Ambassador to the Emirates Barbara Leaf. The Emirates have strong military ties with the United States, including the joint operation of the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi. Additionally, the Emirates maintain strong fiscal ties with the United States, and according to Hoenlein, “have a $19 billion trade surplus” with America.

“They want to see the United States fully engaged in the region, and they see us as an influential channel that will push for that involvement” when the delegation returns to the United States, stated Hoenlein.

An openness uncommon in the Middle East

Participants in the delegation were generally encouraged by openness expressed by their hosts, which is uncommon among Middle Eastern countries.

“I’m always skeptical of what I hear in English from Arab leaders and spokesmen,” said Julio Messer, past president of the American Friends of Likud (Israel’s ruling political party) nonprofit organization. “But I leave the UAE convinced of their sincerity in combatting intolerance, extremism and terrorism in the region, as well as actively supporting the U.S. globally.”

“The visit offered an important opportunity to engage with the leaders of a country that is playing such a transformational role in the region,” added Mariaschin.

“Hosting us was important gesture,” said Hoenlein, demonstrating the Arab country’s willingness to engage with the Jewish community. “This trip is not invisible, and this year we had a larger delegation than usual.”

According to Hoenlein, the Emirates went out of their way to accommodate the delegation, noting that “one of the main restaurants in Dubai koshered their entire kitchen to provide meals,” so that everyone in the group could dine together, including observant Jews who only eat strictly kosher food.

The Conference of Presidents travels to a Middle Eastern country each year before arriving in Israel for a three-day convention, where they meet with senior-level Israeli officials, often including the president, prime minister and high-ranking ministers, as well as journalists and security experts.

Meeting with the leaders of countries in the region, affirmed Hoenlein, “has paid off in almost each .”