Three Gulf states reach out to Israel for help battling COVID-19 pandemic
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Three Gulf states reach out to Israel for help battling COVID-19 pandemic

UAE and Bahrain have been in touch with Ramat Gan’s Sheba hospital for months; now a third country — likely Kuwait — has asked for help erecting telemedicine facilities

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

Kuwaiti health minister Sheikh Basel al-Sabah (R) speaks to the press at Sheikh Saad Airport in Kuwait City, on February 22, 2020, as Kuwaitis returning from Iran wait before being taken to a hospital to be tested for coronavirus (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP)
Kuwaiti health minister Sheikh Basel al-Sabah (R) speaks to the press at Sheikh Saad Airport in Kuwait City, on February 22, 2020, as Kuwaitis returning from Iran wait before being taken to a hospital to be tested for coronavirus (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP)

Three states in the Arab Gulf are actively engaged in cooperation with Israel’s health system, with one having recently asked for help installing an advanced telemedicine system to confront the coronavirus pandemic, a senior official at one of the country’s leading hospitals said Sunday.

Top representatives from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have been in regular touch with the Sheba Medical Center since before the current health crisis, said Yoel Hareven, who heads the hospital’s international division. But in March, a high-ranking member of the Emirati royal family privately visited the hospital in Ramat Gan and has since remained in weekly contact, Hareven said.

In addition, a third country in the Gulf that is not known to have strong ties with Israel recently reached out to Sheba with a request for help installing telemedicine solutions to treat COVID-19 patients from afar, something Sheba has specialized in, he said.

Hareven refused to name the third country, but was likely referring to Kuwait.

“There is a growing readiness to interact with us, even openly, in the health sphere,” he said. “These things happen slowly, but they happen, maybe not at the [inter-governmental] level as we would have liked, but things are happening.”

Hareven said he was certain that the job the unnamed country gave Sheba will lead to future cooperation between the two governments.

Workers preparing new wards following the spread of the coronavirus, at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on March 17, 2020. (Flash90)

“You open a small crack and the foot enters the door, and later the whole body and then the head come in,” he said. “It’s indeed the beginning of a very fascinating journey — for the entire Israeli public, not only for the medical field or Sheba Medical Center.”

The Gulf states recognize how powerful and innovative Israel’s health sector is and are increasingly will to say so openly, he added. “How do we take this one step forward [to the establishment of diplomatic ties]? That’s for the politicians and diplomats to decide. We’re enablers who provide the platform for this process.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who has extensive ties in the Gulf and helped establish the connection between Sheba and the Bahraini government, highlighted that three of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are now engaged in one way or another with Israel’s health system.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (L) speaking with Rabbi Marc Schneier and Yitzhak Kreiss, head of the Sheba Medical Center in central Israel, at the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ workshop in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

“That’s 50 percent representation in the Gulf. That is a very significant development,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in the Hamptons, where he heads the small local Jewish community.

“Throughout the pandemic I have been in contact with all my friends in the Gulf, members of the royal families, ambassadors and so on. They continue to express a desire to cooperate and work with Israel, particularly when it comes to the health industry.”

Many decision makers in the Gulf envision a partnership that would marry the Arab countries’ economic wherewithal with Israel’s brain trust, he said.

“I’ve heard this repeatedly from my friends in the Gulf: COVID-19 is a real opportunity for joint cooperation.”

Last week, the Emirati ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Lana Nusseibeh, said that while she was unaware of any concrete health-related cooperation between the UAE and Israel regarding the coronavirus, there was nothing that should prevent it from happening.

“I’m sure there is a lot of scope for cooperation. I don’t think we would be opposed to it, because I really think the public health space should be an unpoliticized space, where we all try and pool our knowledge of this virus,” she said at an online conference hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

The fight against the pandemic “should not have any borders or boundaries,” she said, adding that even before the virus spread, Israeli medics had participated in workshops with the UAE.

She also congratulated Israeli epidemiologists and doctors for their potential “breakthrough” in finding a treatment for Covid-19 based on antibodies. “That is very exciting for all of us… because we are also working on similar therapeutics, so there is potentially room for cooperation there.”

In June 2019, Sheba’s director-general, Prof. Yitshak Kreiss, was among a handful of Israelis invited to the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain, during which the US unveiled the first, economic part of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

In Manama, he later said, he held “many meetings” with “various high-ranking leaders from Persian Gulf states.”

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