Avi Liberman took to the stage in Dubai on a Thursday night this month, very conscious of his status as the first Israeli-born comedian to perform in the United Arab Emirates.
“Happy Hanukkah!” he shouted to the physically distanced audience of about 50 people, drawing blank stares. “That’s the response I expected,” he continued, this time eliciting guffaws from the audience at the Laughter Factory, a comedy show that tours Dubai’s five-star hotels.
The serious part of the evening was Mr. Liberman’s very presence in the city, which bills itself as the entertainment capital of the Arab world. His 11-minute set, delivered in rapid-fire English, was a breakthrough made possible by the September signing of the Abraham Accords, the long-awaited normalization of relations between Israel and the tiny Persian Gulf states of the UAE and Bahrain. Sudan and Morocco have also since signed mutual recognition pacts with Israel.
In a sign of how quickly the welcome mat has been rolled out for Israelis in Dubai, Mr. Liberman said in an interview that his weekend in the city included Shabbat prayers Friday night that were followed by a kosher Hanukkah dinner in the city’s iconic Burj Khalifa tower.
The normalization agreements, which allow for travel and an exchange of ambassadors between Israel and the four predominantly Muslim states, will likely stand as the most significant foreign policy achievement of U.S. President Donald Trump’s four years in the White House.
After decades of refusing to recognize Israel out of solidarity with the Palestinians – who have long lived under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, or scattered in refugee camps around the Middle East – the rulers of the UAE and Bahrain have come in recent years to see neighbouring Iran as a bigger security threat than the Jewish state. That fit well with the Trump administration’s agenda of trying to isolate and pressure the Islamic Republic.
Palestinian anger over the accords followed Mr. Liberman all the way to Dubai. Midway through his show, he polled his audience about where they were from. One woman said she was from Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank. She walked out a few minutes later, complaining that one of Mr. Liberman’s bits – in which he joked about having to choose between the “Hamas express” and “ISIS yellow cab” taxi drivers during a visit to Jordan – was racist.
Geopolitics isn’t the only driver of an exuberant exchange of visitors and trade between Israel and Dubai, the only one of the seven emirates that comprise the UAE (and one of the very few tourist destinations anywhere) that has remained open to international travellers during the second wave of the pandemic.
Mr. Liberman was among 50,000 Israelis expected to visit the city in December. Both Dubai-based Emirates airline and Israel’s El Al now fly multiple times a day between Dubai and Tel Aviv, a commercial route that didn’t exist until this fall.
Israeli visitors to Dubai are a mix of tourists and business people, drawn by the city’s famed shopping malls and beaches, as well as curiosity about a new destination and market. Israeli media have reported that Dubai will replace New York as the most popular holiday destination for Israelis this month.
Two hundred Israeli companies also attended Dubai’s annual GITEX Technology Week. GITEX, which was held Dec. 6-10, is one of the world’s biggest high-tech trade shows – and one of very few to be held in person this year. Attendees said the Israeli presence was so notable that Hebrew was one of the most-spoken languages at the conference, which is usually dominated by Arabic and English.
To those used to living on opposite sides of an undeclared conflict, the changes are dramatic.
“When I heard about [the Abraham Accords], I did not believe this would happen, because all of my life I have been hearing that Israelis are bad and they do not like us and they hate us and they are dangerous people. I was really scared of them,” said Khalifa Almazrouei, 28, a Dubai-based travel guide and photographer who works for the Arabic-language edition of National Geographic.
Israel’s borders are currently closed to foreigners, but Mr. Almazrouei said he hopes to travel there soon and visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which he has seen photos of since he was a boy. The mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the holiest sites in Islam – and one of the most contested pieces of land in the world.
“The war between Arabic people and Israeli people has been going on for 70 years now, and nothing changed by fighting and by force,” Mr. Almazrouei said. “Everything can be solved with peace.”
Not everyone agrees with the kind of peace delivered by the Abraham Accords. The Palestinian Authority has criticized the deals as a “betrayal,” saying they give Israel something it has long desired – diplomatic and trade ties with Arab countries – while demanding no concessions from Israel regarding the occupation.
And while the pacts have led to a rapid warming of ties between Israel and the UAE, it may take longer for Israelis to feel comfortable visiting other parts of the Arab world. Polling conducted by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation found that, among six Arab countries polled, only in the UAE did a plurality of citizens hold a favourable impression of Israel – 46 per cent, versus 43 per cent who said they held an unfavourable impression.
In Bahrain, only 31 per cent of respondents said they felt favourably about Israel. In Morocco, that number was 16 per cent. Sudan was not included in the poll.
Mr. Liberman said he was ready to take his act to any country ready to invite an Israeli comedian. Morocco, he feels, might be the most promising because of its large Jewish population.
Asked about the weight he feels as a cultural ambassador for the Jewish state in the Arab world, the 49-year-old responds with another joke from his show, one based on experience: “When I told my friends in Israel that I was going to be performing here, it’s not an immediate response of encouragement. They say: ‘Listen, don’t say anything stupid, okay? We finally have this peace treaty. I don’t want you going there, opening your fat mouth and, all of a sudden, I can’t go to the [Dubai] mall any more. So be careful.’ ”
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