The Cleveland Jewish News has reported on the normalization treaty signed last August between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. My perspective on this positive development is based on experience in the UAE including a visit last month during which – thanks to an introduction from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in Beachwood – I met with leaders of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, an organization representing the estimated 2,000 Jews in the UAE.
The UAE is a young country founded in 1971 when seven “states” formed a union. The most well-known of the seven are Abu Dhabi – energy and political capital – and Dubai – commercial and tourism capital where more than 130,000 Israelis have visited since September.
From early on, the UAE was determined to be a positive role model and global force by using its immense energy resources to create a modern, diversified economy and an equally modern, pluralistic society. Achieving this required the UAE to open its doors to the world and encourage wide-scale immigration.
The UAE’s success in creating a modern economic powerhouse is well known. Less well-known and perhaps more impressive is its success in creating a modern, pluralistic society. How pluralistic? Emiratis are now a minority of the 11 million population – about 11%. The balance – almost 90% – are non-Emiratis representing 200 nationalities. They have come for economic opportunity and a new way of life and found plenty of both.
While the UAE is a Muslim country and many of the non-Emiratis are Muslim, there is religious diversity including Hindus, Sikhs, Mormons, Jews and Christians who worship in more than 40 churches. Religious discrimination is legally prohibited. Religious tolerance is actively fostered by the Ministry of Inclusion – how many countries have one of these?
Much of the UAE’s modernity is in plain sight and often surprises first-time visitors. It is evident in the diversity of dress and faces seen on the street, women occupying positions of power, a vibrant contemporary art scene and in ways impossible to miss such as the world’s tallest building, scores of other skyscrapers and massive shopping malls – one of which includes an indoor ski resort.
Through a combination of mutual desire and need, contacts between Israel and the UAE grew in recent years. So did UAE support for the JCE. These contacts and support were often below the radar. Thanks to the normalization treaty, they have evolved to be not just on the radar, but center stage.
Jews have been part of the non-Emirati community for many years and their life as Jews has not been challenge free. Engaged members of this community formed the JCE with help from the American Jewish Committee recently supplemented by resources from the Joint Distribution Committee.
The JCE’s mission is to welcome and provide a meeting ground for all Jews. It partners with the Ministry of Inclusion in its efforts to make Jews feel welcome. It also serves as the focal point for relations with the wider Jewish world such as the World Jewish Congress and Maccabi World Union.
Cleveland is connected to the UAE in many ways. At the top of the list is the Cleveland Clinic’s Abu Dhabi campus, which fully opened in 2015. That campus is home to more than 5,500 caregivers providing Clinic-style care across more than 40 specialties which complete over 700,000 annual patient encounters. The Abu Dhabi campus includes several hundred transferees from Cleveland, including members of the Cleveland Jewish community.
Against this background, I offer the following non-sponsored observations:
• The normalization treaty and attendant efforts to boost the JCE fill a gap between the UAE’s aspirations and on the ground reality. They do not make the UAE Nirvana or the Jewish world risk free. Nevertheless they are big steps in the right direction.
• Despite their minority status, Emiratis remain in control and are on board with normalization. However success of normalization requires support of the non-Emirati population, many of whom come from countries where Jews are not well-known or positively portrayed. There is basis to believe this majority is on board with normalization, but this remains a work in process.
• Given the important role the UAE has created for itself, success of normalization could have multiplier effect across the world.
• For these reasons the Cleveland Jewish community, which is legendary for its support of global Jewry, should extend that support to the JCE.
John Dunn of Cleveland is a retired partner at Jones Day in Cleveland and has international experience, including with the UAE. John and his wife, Leslie, are members of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood.