Despite normalization with Israel, plans for Dubai synagogue at a standstill
Fast-growing Jewish community is running up against series of hurdles in the Gulf, where non-Muslim practice is tightly controlled and permits for religious buildings are limited
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Every Saturday, in secluded beach villas, hotel banquet halls and luxury apartment towers across Dubai, Jews arrive to worship at some of the world’s most hidden synagogues even as the United Arab Emirates encourages the dramatic growth and openness of its Jewish community.
Plans to build a permanent sanctuary for Dubai’s fast-expanding congregation have sputtered to a standstill, Jewish leaders say. The new community is running up against hurdles that religious groups long have grappled with in this federation, where the state’s official religion of Islam is closely monitored, non-Muslim practice is controlled and religious buildings are limited.
The fast-growing population of Jewish immigrants to the UAE — including an influx of Israelis after the countries normalized relations in 2020 and recently of Russians after the war on Ukraine — may feel freer than ever to express their identity in this autocratic Arab sheikhdom, which has sought to brand itself as an oasis of religious tolerance.
A Jewish nursery has sprung up. So has a mikvah, or ritual bath. New kosher restaurants do brisk business. Recent Passover Seders drew thousands. But without a home base, some Jewish leaders fear a state of perpetual limbo.
“You cannot grow a community in a hotel,” said Elie Abadie, senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates. “It gives the feeling of instability, of not belonging.”
Religious groups seeking to establish new sanctuaries contend with convoluted rules in the country, where expats outnumber Emirati Muslims nearly nine to one. Dubai has declared just two space-starved zones buildable for religious sanctuaries.
The main church compound — land the government is now offering for a synagogue — rests on the furthest reaches of the city, a dusty area by the Jebel Ali Port and local aluminum smelter.
“We used to be out in the boonies,” said Jim Young, an Anglican chaplain, although a metro line recently made churches more reachable. Legions of low-paid foreign workers powering Dubai’s economy — Catholic Filipinos, evangelical Africans, Hindu Indians — travel to the compound in buses from faraway labor camps.
On the Sabbath, however, observant Jews can do no such thing. From sundown on Friday until the stars come out on Saturday, many devout Jews refrain from the use of mechanical devices, including cars. To prevent long treks on the holy day, synagogues are typically situated at the heart of residential neighborhoods.
But no one lives in the industrial free-trade zone of Jebel Ali — save for a small group of expats whose dilapidated cottages face demolition. In Dubai’s searing summer heat, walking to the temple compound from downtown Dubai or the marina, where most Jews reside, is unthinkable.
“Jebel Ali is not a solution for the Jewish population,” said Alex Peterfreund, a community leader and cantor, adding that a synagogue needs to be somewhere central and residential where observant Jews would want to move and seed a community. “The authorities have to learn what Judaism is… I guess they were a bit surprised.”
Although many of Dubai’s Jews don’t observe Shabbat, the congregation has grown more observant as traditional Israeli and French Jews immigrate.
Community leaders say they turned down the Jebel Ali synagogue proposal, and talks on an alternative location have stalled for months.
The UAE National Human Rights Authority acknowledged the difficulties, saying: “There are administrative and regulatory laws that must be met.”
The authority’s spokesman, Mohamed al-Hamadi, nonetheless stressed the Emirates’ decades-long tolerance of religious minorities.
“There is no fear or concern about the inclusion of the Jewish people,” he said, pointing to the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith facility comprising a mosque, church and synagogue, now under construction in the capital Abu Dhabi, as proof of the country’s hospitality.
The gleaming interfaith project, due to open later this year on an island off the oil-rich emirate, seeks to highlight the Emirati tradition of peaceful, interfaith relations and promote the UAE as a beacon of tolerance.
However, the country takes a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to dissent, and to political Islam.
Religious freedoms have limits, too. Authorities provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques, according to the US State Department’s latest religious freedom report, with “additional instructions” given to Shiite mosques. A permit is required to hold a Quran memorization circle. Laws prohibit vaguely defined blasphemy.
“The UAE gets to brand itself as a haven of moderate Islam, and against extremism, which also includes domestic, Islamically informed democratic activism,” said David Warren, a scholar of contemporary Islam at Washington University in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, local religious groups wrestle with logistical and bureaucratic restrictions. Over 700 Christian congregations squeeze into some 40 churches nationwide.
The construction of new sanctuaries “did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population,” the State Department notes, describing overcrowding at Dubai’s compounds as “especially pronounced.”
Dubai’s Community Development Authority, which issues licenses to religious organizations, did not respond to requests for comment.
Fellowship, a Protestant congregation, decided years ago to be free of the crowds and constraints. It abandoned the compound and went rogue, commanding rapt audiences at hotels across the city.
Authorities fretted, but Fellowship’s pastor persevered, appealing to Emirati leaders for special permission to operate outside the compound. The organization succeeded and its non-traditional services exploded in popularity.
“Some might recount the experience as Fellowship overcoming incredible barriers,” said Steven Pottorff, Fellowship’s communications director.
For Jews, the opposite is true. Without a formal public space for worship, they pray freely in Dubai’s five-star resorts and private residences.
At a recent Shabbat downtown, a rabbi blessing the bread strained to be heard over pop music blaring from the world’s largest mall. At a hotel in the yacht-filled marina, security guards now well-acquainted with Jewish biblical injunctions hurried to push elevator buttons for worshipers.
“A banquet room makes you feel you’re going to a party,” said Rabbi Abadie, who kindled controversy online last month calling for the creation of a self-sufficient Jewish enclave in Dubai.
He said his comments were misunderstood, but stressed the urgency of Jews finding a permanent place to pray.
“As long as there is no central place, the community will splinter, will divide,” he warned.