In damage control effort, FM says Israelis love Dubai

Likud’s Regev says she doesn’t like Dubai, won’t return; later walks back remarks

Transportation minister claims undiplomatic comments about not going back to UAE city were a joke, says she will visit after speaking to ambassador amid mounting bilateral tension

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Israel's Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, center, visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with UAE officials on October 29, 2018. (Courtesy Chen Kedem Maktoubi)
Israel's Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, center, visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi with UAE officials on October 29, 2018. (Courtesy Chen Kedem Maktoubi)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev on Wednesday said in a speech that she did not like visiting Dubai and would not be going back to the city in the United Arab Emirates, which has been at the forefront of recent Israeli efforts to normalize ties with Arab nations.

“I’ve been to Dubai. I won’t be going back. I don’t like the place,” Regev said at a conference Wednesday, while praising the emirate’s abilities to build roads.

She later disavowed the remarks as an attempt at humor, accusing the media of twisting her remarks. She also said she spoke to the Emirati ambassador to Israel about visiting the Gulf city again.

Her unprompted broadside against the UAE comes amid mounting tensions between Israel’s hardline government and Arab nations that have made peace with Israel.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen tried to soften the impact of his fellow Likud minister’s faux pas, tweeting a picture of himself with UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, with the caption “I love Dubai, and so do the million Israelis who have visited the UAE in 2022.”

Regev, the Likud party’s most senior female politician, visited Dubai in 2018 while serving as the culture and sports minister to watch the Israeli judoka team compete at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, marking the first-ever official state visit by an Israeli minister.

This was two years before the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

Shortly after her remarks caused a minor firestorm, Regev tweeted that she spoke with UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja about a trip to the Emirates.

“Mohamed… thank you for the invitation. I will come to Dubai with you and, yes, and I am waiting for you, in Jerusalem, in my office,” she says into her phone in English during a video included in her tweet.

“[Al Khaja] understands what the media does not, or perhaps does but wants to remove remarks from their context,” she adds to the camera, before noting that thanks to the brouhaha, “I got another invite to Dubai.”

The Emirati embassy did not return calls seeking confirmation of the conversation or the invitation.

Relations with the UAE have appeared rocky since the swearing-in of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Abu Dhabi joined Qatar and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to condemn remarks by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who said this week in Paris that the Palestinian nation doesn’t exist, while standing on a podium that featured a map of “Greater Israel” that includes the territories of Jordan and the West Bank.

The Emirati Foreign Ministry condemned both the map and the remarks, emphasizing the need “to confront discourse of hate and violence.”

In January, the Emirates postponed an official visit of Netanyahu after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the flashpoint Temple Mount site, citing scheduling problems.

Since then, efforts to reschedule have remained fruitless. A Middle East diplomat who spoke with The Times of Israel confirmed that Ben Gvir’s actions were what spurred the postponement of the visit.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks in Paris on March 19, 2023 (Ynet screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In a statement issued hours after Ben Gvir visited the site, the UAE denounced his “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard” and called for an end to “serious and provocative violations.”

Ben Gvir has long been an advocate of formally altering the Temple Mount status quo, in which Muslims are allowed to pray and enter with few restrictions and Jews can visit only during limited time slots via a single gate and walk on a predetermined route, closely accompanied by police. Jews are not allowed to pray at the site, though recent years have increasingly seen police allow some silent prayer.

The UAE also called for a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council following a settler rampage in Huwara in February, which left a Palestinian dead while dozens of homes and vehicles were torched.

While Regev dismissed the charms of Dubai, she said she was impressed as a transportation minister.

“It’s amazing what they have built in six years. A country in six years. And we aren’t able to build wide roads, with several lanes, including lanes for public transportation and bike paths,” she told an Israel Lands Authority Conference in Tel Aviv.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev attends an Israel Lands Authority conference in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The minister spoke as reservist protesters demonstrated outside the conference against the coalition’s plan to shackle the judiciary.

Also in the speech, Regev announced plans for the “Railway of Peace” connecting Haifa to the Jordan River Crossing, an international border crossing between Irbid, Jordan, and Beit She’an, Israel, though it was unclear when or if the project would get underway.

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