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Reporter's notebook

Setting the pace: The UAE’s envoy to Israel, an inspiring Israeli athlete… and me

Mohamed Al Khaja accompanies blind runner Avi Solomon as he prepares for the Abu Dhabi marathon, and tells this breathless hack why UAE-Israel ties will be a model for peace

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja (third from left), runner Avi Solomon (center), and Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (second from right) before their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)
    UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja (third from left), runner Avi Solomon (center), and Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (second from right) before their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)
  • UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khajah (right) being given a gift of a travel Shabbat kit by blind Israeli  runner Avi Solomon (center), after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)
    UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khajah (right) being given a gift of a travel Shabbat kit by blind Israeli runner Avi Solomon (center), after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)
  • UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khajah (right), and Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (left) after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)
    UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khajah (right), and Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (left) after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)

The Tel Aviv beachside boardwalk was full of runners late Thursday afternoon, as it is every day when the sun begins to set beyond the sailboats, painting the sky orange and purple.

But one group of runners on the move just north of Jaffa’s port was particularly noteworthy — an assemblage that would have been unthinkable until just over a year ago.

The United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to Israel, Mohamed Al Khaja, had come to run with blind Israeli runner Avi Solomon, eight days before the Ethiopia-born athlete was to compete in the Abu Dhabi marathon.

Joining them were Solomon’s running partner Daniel and members of Khaja’s personal staff.

And this correspondent.

Renowned war reporters, like Winston Churchill in the Boer War and Martin Bell in Sarajevo, have long shown a willingness to suffer great privations to tell readers the story. As for me, I was ready to run six kilometers along Tel Aviv’s beachfront — and six kilometers back to my car — in order to bring to readers this inspiring tale.

UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khaja (right), and Times of Israel diplomatic correspondent Lazar Berman (left) after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Maria Troyanker/UAE Embassy)

Solomon, who left Ethiopia at the age of 6 in 1990, was clearly touched by the ambassador’s presence.

“It is a great honor that he could find and dedicate the time for me and for this project,” he said. “It really shows the warmth and the generosity of the ambassador.”

“It also shows something about the population of Abu Dhabi,” Solomon continued, “that they’re warm, loving, a population that really seeks peace and respects creation. A people like this, and a place like this, I’m waiting eagerly to arrive there.”

Solomon, who lost some of his vision as a boy in Ethiopia, then was rendered blind by a botched operation in Israel, is still not certain whether he will run the half or full marathon in Abu Dhabi. That depends on weather conditions, he explained.

UAE Ambassador to Israel Muhammad Al Khaja (left) with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, October 19, 2021 (Haim Tzah/GPO)

But whatever length he and his partner run, they will have to be completely focused.

“From the minute we put the strap on our wrists, we have to be totally synchronized in terms of body movements, arms, legs. He has to speak a lot during the run, to describe to me what is going on along the course,” Solomon explained.

From vision to experience

The encounter was organized by the Gulf -Israel Women’s forum, co-founded by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and Justine Zwerling.

“Our forum is working towards creating more opportunities for people of disabilities across the Abraham Accords countries,” said Hassan-Nahoum. “Sports is a big part of our plan to increase quality of life for these populations. Avi is a role model for everyone and Justine is playing an important role in ensuring we spread that message.”

The group headed north along Charles Clore Park, with the sea on our left, hotels and the historic Hassan Bek mosque on our right.

Khaja, an avid runner and cyclist, said that running has been an important constant since he came to Israel as ambassador in February.

“The first day I arrived I went for a morning run along the Tel Aviv beach,” he said, “and I wouldn’t miss any opportunity for a run, especially when I’m running with a gifted person whose courage is inspiring, and who is also running in Abu Dhabi soon.”

He said that he sees sports diplomacy as a  way to advance the fast-growing Israel-UAE relationship: “We are very ambitious here. It’s definitely an area where people can feel the relationship. Moving from a vision, from something symbolic, to something real that people experience.”

“There have been a lot of rumors about hosting the World Cup together,” he noted cryptically but offered nothing further.

In general, said Khaja, the UAE is looking to invest in “model or anchor projects” that will shape the future of the relationship.

In September 2020, Israel established formal diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain, followed by Morocco and a normalization agreement with Sudan. In July, Israel opened its embassy in Abu Dhabi.

“Everyone is approachable in Israel,” Khajah mused. “Israelis are very curious as we are.”

“[Israeli envoy to the UAE] Amir Hayek and I always complain to each other how fast things are moving, and how hard it is to keep up.”

As we ran alongside Solomon, the conversation turned to religion and extremism.

“Religion is a relationship between an individual and the Almighty,” Khaja reflected. “All religions ask for peace, tolerance, coexistence. I haven’t read the scripture of any religion that calls for violence, that calls for hate, that calls for racism. But our region suffers from lack of education, and unfortunately poor economic prospects. So there are people who fall prey to people who try to manipulate in a way, for political gain or influence.”

But Khaja believes that it is possible to overcome the obstacles.

UAE ambassador to Israel Mohamed al Khaja (right) being given a gift of a travel Shabbat kit by blind Israeli runner Avi Solomon (center), after their run in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“We believe that we should always be optimistic, and focus on areas of interest, and double down on what we have in common. This is the only way we can have a long-lasting, warm peace, a sustainable peace.”

One area that is a clear foundation for the relationship is trade. At a ceremony marking the Abraham Accords one-year anniversary, Emirati Economy Minister Abdulla bin Touq Al-Marri said that Israel and the UAE had already signed off on over $600 million in bilateral trade for the first half of this year in areas like food, agriculture, healthcare, aviation, water and energy, as well as dozens of MOUs that outline existing and future deals.

“We’re looking to create over a trillion dollars of economic activity with Israel over the next decade,” the minister added.

While Israelis have long maintained quiet commercial and security ties with the UAE, the normalization agreement was seen as a potential economic boon, with increased access to the global business and shipping hub of Dubai, on top of tourism and energy.

“The UAE is a business platform for the region, and it is just natural to have the relationship,” said Khaja. “We have Israelis quite active already in the business community of the UAE.”

“It’s just natural that this could eventually develop into more trade across the MENA region.”

UAE looks to be central to the growing India-Israel relationship, as New Delhi begins to develop a logistic and trade network through the Gulf and Israel to Europe. UAE’s close ties with Serbia can also propel Israel’s expanding trade relationship in the Balkans.

Crafting the future

Khaja, 40, attended university in Boston and speaks fluent English. He began studying Hebrew with a private tutor once he took up residence in Israel, but has not had much time to study.

He has worked in a range of private-sector positions in the UAE, and served as the Emirati Foreign Ministry’s chief of staff.

His wife and four children continue to live in Abu Dhabi as he works hard to shepherd the expanding relationship.

As we reached Tel Aviv’s port area — Solomon still running easily and effortlessly, me slightly less so — Khaja acknowledged that the direction and pace of UAE-Israel ties have important implications for the region.

US President Donald Trump, center, with, from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

“Peace is a prerequisite for prosperity and security,” he declared. “And with the Abraham Accords, and bilateral relations, and the way it’s been developing, I think this is a model that should work and be beneficial to everyone. Of course this for us was a sovereign decision, with the future prospects, and I cannot comment about the other countries. I’m sure this model will be something for others to consider.”

“We need to think of what our neighborhood should look like,” the ambassador continued. “We should not be held hostage by regional threats or regional issues. We should always think of what matters to us and our people, and to the security of the region.”

“It can be that when someone says the Middle East, the first thing that comes to mind is the Abraham Accords, is peace, is prosperity, development, and future technologies. Why not? We should always think about what kind of future we want to shape for the future generation.”

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