UAE said readying to open doors to Israeli tourists, starting with 2020 Expo

Talks reportedly ongoing to enable visitors from Israel to continue coming after Dubai world fair, as tacit ties continue to warm

People visit the Dubai Expo 2020 stand at the Cityscape Global exhibition, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 11, 2017. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)
People visit the Dubai Expo 2020 stand at the Cityscape Global exhibition, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 11, 2017. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

The United Arab Emirates intends to allow Israeli tourists to freely visit the country and is engaged in high-level talks with Israeli authorities to put the policy into practice, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper reported Wednesday.

Israelis will initially be allowed to enter the UAE so that they can attend the Expo 2020 world fair in Dubai, which will include an Israeli pavilion. However, Expo and UAE sources confirmed to the paper that the intention is to leave the door open to Israeli visitors even after the exhibition closes.

Israel has no diplomatic ties with the UAE, though relations between the countries have quietly warmed over shared concerns about Iranian aggression in the region. Senior Israeli ministers have openly visited the country and in 2018, Israel’s national anthem was played at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi when its team member won a gold medal.

Mohamed Khater, assistant director for tourism development in Ras Al Khaimah, a UAE emirate, confirmed that Israelis will be allowed to visit the Expo.

“I believe, God willing, they will come to visit also after the exhibition,” he said. “Already now hundreds of Israelis trickle into the country and we will be glad to host all of them.”

Israelis can currently visit the UAE if they have a foreign passport or with Israeli travel papers after getting a special entry permit.

An architectural model of the Expo 2020 site is on display at the fair’s office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 8, 2016. (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Expo officials, attending the World Travel Market fair in London, told Yedioth on Tuesday that diplomatic efforts were underway to enable Israeli tourism for the international exhibition, which is held every five years.

“For some time there have been contacts at the most senior levels in the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in order to open the country’s gates to those with Israeli passports,” an Expo official told Yedioth.

“These discussions are being held out of an intention to make the Expo the biggest and most sparkling international exhibition. The Emirates see the exhibition as a national project and are investing tremendous amounts of money and great thought in it. They also want to welcome the Israelis who come to exhibition.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the Yedioth report.

Expo 2020, which runs from October 20, 2020, to April 20, 2021, is set to attract some 25 million visitors to the glitzy emirate, famed for its luxury resorts and opulent shopping malls.

Another Expo source confirmed the talks between the two countries and said the fair will be “the pilot, during which Israeli tourists will be permitted to visit the country. But also after the exhibition is closed, the Emirate rulers will leave the country’s gates open to Israeli tourists.”

A US source, described as being close to the UAE rulers, told Yedioth that the emirates want not just tourists but also Israeli entrepreneurs.

A screenshot from a Foreign Ministry video showing a preview of the Israeli pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai (courtesy MFA)

In April, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced that Israel will take part in the 2020 World Expo, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailing “another expression of Israel’s rising status in the world and the region.”

At the time, the ministry said it welcomed “the opportunity to share our spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship and to present Israeli innovations and trailblazing technology in various fields such as water, medicine and information technology.”

The expo, the latest in the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions’ (BIE) “universal expositions,” will see over 190 countries showcase their cultures, innovations and visions for the future.

Over the past months, Israel’s backdoor relations with former Arab foes have increasingly entered public view. Israel and the Sunni Arab states have in recent years cooperated clandestinely in light of their common enmity to Iran.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev traveled to the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi in October last year for the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament, and the Israeli national anthem was played for the first time on the Arabian peninsula after Sagi Muki won gold in the under-81 kilogram category.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, middle, shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha’loob Al Derai, President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation, after one Israeli player won the bronze medal during the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

Regev’s visit was followed a month later by that of communications minister Ayoub Kara, who arrived for a week-long visit to the United Arab Emirates to attend a telecommunications conference.

The UAE has declared 2019 “The Year of Tolerance” and in May Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the New York University chaplain, was announced as the first chief rabbi of the Jewish Community of the United Arab Emirates. Sarna was reportedly to make four visits year to the community, which is composed of Jewish foreign nationals who live and work in country.

In September the UAE announced it would build a new synagogue as part of an interfaith compound that will also house a mosque and church. The city is already home to what is believed to be the Gulf’s only active synagogue.

According to a survey published in October by the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, 42 percent of the public in the Emirates is interested in establishing relations with Israel.

The last World Expo was held in Milan, Italy, in 2015. In that exposition, the Israeli pavilion was designed as a giant “vertical field” of wheat, rice and corn. It was intended to showcase Israeli expertise in the drip-irrigation technology that has enabled the cultivation of crops in arid areas around the world after being first developed on a kibbutz in the Negev desert.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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