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Reporter's Notebook

The (surreal) new normal: Israeli journalists go sightseeing in Abu Dhabi

While the officials discussed the formalizing of ties, we toured the capital and then flew home over Saudi Arabia — routine occurrences that just never happened to Israelis before

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli reporters at the historic watchtower in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy)
Israeli reporters at the historic watchtower in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020 (Matty Stern/US Embassy)

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — While Monday was dominated by headlines about the historic first-ever Israeli nonstop flight from Tel Aviv to an Arab Gulf country, the second and final day of the Israeli delegation’s trip to Abu Dhabi was less dramatic — but no less busy and colorful.

Our Emirati hosts put on a hectic program, again clearly geared at showing us their country’s best side, with a particular focus on history and religion. It was a fascinating, perfectly normal day of tourism, made surreal by the fact that we were Israelis in the capital of a Gulf state with whom normal relations were not conducted until this trip.

Before the formal part of the itinerary, at around 7.30 a.m., I joined the head of the Israeli delegation, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, as well as other Israeli officials and a group of local Jews, for a quickly arranged morning prayer service in a hall at the ritzy St. Regis hotel where we were staying.

Members of the two rival Orthodox congregations in Dubai were there, and had brought two Torah scrolls to Abu Dhabi (there is no Jewish community in the capital) although the Torah is not usually read on Tuesday mornings.

A Jewish minyan organized at the hotel of the Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

After the regular services, led by a Belgian-born cantor from the established congregation, a rabbi from the breakaway community blew the shofar in honor of the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday and recited a Hebrew prayer for the UAE, its leaders and its armed forces. Ben-Shabbat briefly chanted selichot, recited ahead of the Jewish New Year to ask for divine forgiveness. “We sinned before you, have mercy on us,” he sang in traditional Sephardi tunes. A few moments later, the community members briefly opened one of the Torah scrolls, and Ben-Shabbat, spotting a verse that related to “coming in peace,” read it out aloud.

After the service, we followed a sign outside the hall: “Kosher Food to be served at Main Dining Area.” Just like the banquet the night before, breakfast was provided by Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, a Dubai-based catering business, and supervised by an Israeli-American rabbi flown in especially for the occasion.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat meets with his counterpart, UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed; UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed; US Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner; US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien; and other officials, in the UAE National Security Advisor’s palace in Abu Dhabi, August 31, 2020. (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)

Ben-Shabbat and the other Israeli officials then headed back into the meeting rooms to continue their work on legal and logistical questions of the peace accord, together with their Emirati counterparts. They hammered out the first protocol on banking and financial services, and discussed other areas, such as air links and cooperation in science and technology. These discussions were closed to the press.

Instead, we journalists went sightseeing.

First, we were given a guided tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center, the largest Muslim house of prayer in the country.

Outside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi (Raphael Ahren / Times of Israel)

Completed in 2007, this immense mosque — which can hold 41,000 worshippers — is currently not in use due to the coronavirus pandemic, so it was at once vast and serene. (With a similar-sized population, almost 90% expats and immigrants, the UAE is faring rather better than Israel in the battle against COVID-19, and as of this week is considered a “green country” by Israel.)

In size and architectural impact, the mosque can maybe be compared to the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem (though that building’s main sanctuary seats only some 7,000).

Named after the country’s founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the mosque is one of Abu Dhabi’s main attractions. Israeli Ministers Yisrael Katz and Miri Regev both visited when they came here to represent Israel at international conferences, months before the UAE openly committed to establishing diplomatic ties with Israel on August 13.

Outside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque (Raphael Ahren / Times of Israel)

There are separate entrances to the compound for men and women, and the female reporters in our group were required to cover their hair with the scarves provided and put on shoulder-to-toe garments in various hues of red, pink and purple.

Once past security, we were driven in kinds of golf carts to the entrance of the mosque itself. We took off our shoes and stepped into the main sanctuary, which features a green Persian carpet — said to be the world’s largest — and seven massive, dazzling, colorful chandeliers each weighing 12 tons. While we were allowed to photograph, we were asked not to publish photos of the mosque’s interior, but it’s truly a spectacular sight.

Sand dunes in the Liwa Oasis (Peter Dowley / Wikipedia)

The next stop was a very brief visit to Qasr Al Hosn, a hyper-modern museum about the history of Abu Dhabi. A guide told us about Liwa, an arc of oases in the north of the Rub Al Khali desert that is the ancestral home of the Bani Yas, one of the largest tribes in the region.

She then took us to the historic watchtower, which was built in the 1700s and is part of the museum compound. It is considered the oldest standing structure on Abu Dhabi island.

UAE founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (UAE foreign ministry)

She also told us the biography of the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, and when we asked her what he would think about the normalization with Israel, replied: “He’d be very happy. He was a man of peace.”

And how does she feel about it? “We follow our leaders. Whatever they decide we support, blindly,” she said.

From there we headed straight to the airport, for an on-record briefing with Jamal al-Musharakh, the director of the Emirati Foreign Ministry’s policy planning department. His answer to a question on whether the normalization process would collapse if Israel were to annex parts of the West Bank made some headlines in Israel — he replied that it wouldn’t, though he apparently meant to say that it would — but in his opening remarks he spoke at great length about the progress in bilateral relations that had been achieved.

“If I had to summarize the last couple of days, two words would come to mind: historic and hopeful,” he said. He declined to speculate on when embassies would be opened or when direct flights connecting the two countries would be inaugurated. But “we want it to happen sooner rather than later,” he offered.

After the briefing, we were invited to another lavish meal, a lunch buffet (without kosher options this time), and then headed back to the El Al Boeing 737-900 that had made history a day earlier.

People heading out to board the El Al plane returning from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, September 1, 2020 (Raphael Ahren / Times of Israel)

As opposed to Monday’s arrival, for Tuesday’s departure there were no Stars and Stripes flags at the airport terminal — only the Emirati and Israeli flags. This time there were no senior White House officials on the plane, as Jared Kushner and his team were heading on to visit other Gulf countries.

But El Al flight 972 (Israel’s international call code, as opposed to flight 971 with the UAE code on Monday) was still allowed to fly over Saudi airspace en route to Tel Aviv.

This normalization process seems to be working.

Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat waves as he boards the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. (NIR ELIAS / POOL / AFP)
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