The Abraham Accords have brought to Israel a steady stream of dignitaries from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, visiting the country to hammer out diplomatic agreements or advance trade ties. While they always emphasize their respective countries’ respect for religious tolerance, they usually steer away from discussing in public their personal feelings about being in the Holy Land.
Not so Zayed R. Alzayani, Bahrain’s minister for industry, commerce and tourism, who spent three days in Israel this week — including a stroll through Jerusalem’s Old City, which he described as a spiritual highlight.
“I’ve always spoken to people who’ve been to Jerusalem. And they always told me: It’s probably the most spiritual city in the world. I felt it last night. I felt it,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday during a briefing for Israeli journalists. “And the closer you get to the holy sites — I don’t know, maybe it was a weird feeling, maybe it’s just me — I felt there’s more spirit.”
Alzayani walked through the Old City’s Armenian, Jewish and Muslim quarters. He saw the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount — the third-holiest site in Islam — from afar, though his schedule didn’t allow for a visit to these holy sites.
“When I got to the balcony where you can see the Wall and Haram al-Sharif [Temple Mount], you could feel — the air was different,” he said. “It was a nice feeling. Probably the closest I felt to that was being in Mecca and Medina, as a Muslim.”
Alzayani discussed his walk through Israel’s capital in the context of a discussion of personal safety, after a reporter asked him if Israelis need to be worried about Iranians trying to attack them if they visit Bahrain — especially after last week’s killing of the Islamic Republic’s top nuclear scientist, which the regime blames on Jerusalem.
“No, you watch too many 007 movies,” he replied with a smile, referring to the James Bond film franchise. “That is not an issue at all. We have quite a good security apparatus in Bahrain. Don’t forget that if there is a threat from Iran it is a threat to Bahrain more than it is a threat to Israelis tourists. So we have to keep our country safe and our borders well protected.”
“If Israelis feel more comfortable by having added security, that can be arranged, but I really don’t think that’s required,” he added, at that point volunteering that he himself had walked around Jerusalem and felt absolutely safe.
“Last night I personally went out to walk around the city, on my own, with a couple of friends. I kind of snuck out because I wanted to go and see and feel for myself, as a normal citizen, not as a government official. And I spent an hour walking in the Old City and I went to the shopping mall across the road. I didn’t feel threatened, I didn’t feel any security issues.”
Very few shops were open when he walked around, but occasionally he stopped to ask for directions.
“To my surprise, most of them were Arabs,” he said. “One person asked me where I was from. I said Bahrain, he was very welcoming. He said, ahalan wasahlan, good to see you here, and that was it.”
Alzayani, who also serves as chairman of Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national carrier, said he sees Jerusalem as possibly attracting tourists not only from Bahrain but from the entire Eastern Hemisphere.
“This city has the element of religious tourism for all faiths,” he said.
Earlier this year, Gulf Air planned to start a new route to Rome and suddenly noticed a significant increase of bookings from Christians from the Philippines eager to visit the Vatican, he recalled.
“I can see the same happening for Jerusalem. We can have Christians from South East Asia coming here; we can have Muslims from India and Pakistan and Bangladesh, which we serve extensively throughout our network, coming here. And we can have Jewish tourism coming to Bahrain or beyond.”
Alzayani’s openness in discussing the importance of Jerusalem — both personally and economically — stands in stark contrast to Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, who spent some 12 hours in the capital last month without ever uttering the name of the city he was in.
In fact, his office wrongly stated at the time that some of the meetings he had held in the capital took place in Tel Aviv — a city he never actually stepped foot in.