“This was something I had not seen in Dubai,” Negi said of the first ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitor to reach his corner of the city’s traditional gold market, part of a wave of Israeli tourists who have descended on the United Arab Emirates in recent days. “It is very good to have new customers to learn about.”
In the two weeks since commercial flights began between Tel Aviv and the Emirati cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Israelis have caused a remarkable tourism boomlet in the Persian Gulf nation. Suddenly, Hebrew can be heard throughout the markets, malls and beaches of a destination that was strictly off-limits until the two countries achieved a diplomatic breakthrough in August and established normal relations.
More than 50,000 Israelis have brushed aside covid-19 concerns, a terrorism warning and decades of tension to make the three-hour flight across the Arabian Peninsula. Israeli tourism officials expected more than 70,000 to arrive during the eight days of Hanukkah, which began last week, in an unprecedented exchange between the Jewish state and one of its historically standoffish Muslim neighbors.
The first Israelis to arrive described a congenial culture clash unlike anything they have experienced in the region.
“This is much warmer than what we felt in Jordan or Egypt,” said Arieh Engel, naming the two Arab countries that have long had official relations with Israel, but not particularly friendly ones.
On his fourth day in the UAE, Engel had just had “Happy Birthday” sung to him in Arabic, English and finally a halting Hebrew by the staff of the Arabia Tea House in Dubai’s Old City. “It feels like they really want us here,” he said.
The diplomatic deals reached since the summer between Jerusalem and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and, just last week, Morocco have broken the long chill between Arab countries and Israel. Palestinians leaders accuse these Arab countries of betrayal by normalizing ties with Israel while it still occupies the West Bank and blocks the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
But the UAE’s incentives for opening relations with Israel were significant. The ties look to be a boon to the UAE’s tourism industry and potentially worth billions of dollars in foreign investment in high tech, agriculture and arms.
“They are so rich here,” marveled Reem Iluz, a Tel Aviv construction engineer loaded down with bags in the palatial Dubai Mall, somewhere between the 2.6 million-gallon aquarium tank and the 19,000-square-foot ice rink. “They have a lot to lose if there is no peace.”
Engel and his wife, Adina, booked a seven-night, $1,800 package tour as soon as it was advertised in November, in part because they were desperate to travel after 10 months of coronavirus restrictions. But the couple also share the common Israeli yearning to feel welcome in their own region.
“To me this feels like the Iron Curtain lifting,” Adina said.
Both governments have worked to start the tourism machinery turning, with some hiccups.
Each country declared the other a covid “green country,” allowing visitors to travel back and forth without quarantining. But Israel’s Health Ministry briefly flipped the UAE’s status to red last week, panicking Israelis who thought they would have to isolate after all when they returned home. The agency quickly reversed the call at the behest of the Foreign Ministry.
Security, too, has caused concern. After the assassination last month of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, an attack widely ascribed to Israel, its National Security Council urged Israelis to avoid travel to the UAE out of fear that Iranian agents would target them. The warning didn’t have much impact, according to tour operators.
“They didn’t actually say not to go, which they do in some cases,” said Yaniv Stainberg, the general manager of Privilege Tourism. “People had questions, but nobody canceled.”
Tour companies in both countries are holding Zoom courses to educate each other on customs and etiquette. Hotel managers in the UAE have added menorahs to their lobby Christmas decor.
One desk manager said she told her housekeepers to look the other way if they saw signs of Hanukkah candles being lighted in the rooms, as long as it didn’t look too hazardous.
Treat Gourmet, a longtime catering company in Dubai, converted itself into a kosher food provider in a matter of weeks, as did a military officers club in Abu Dhabi. The local Jewish Community Center has a contract with Abu Dhabi tourism officials to train and certify almost 150 hotel kitchens as kosher-compliant.
In the meantime, chefs are doing what they can. Some have learned temporary fixes that will satisfy the less-strict kosher-keepers, such as cooking fish in foil to insulate it from a non-
“They have really worked hard to help us,” said Yossi Herzog, a guide with Israel’s Millennium Travel who was leading the company’s second week-long Dubai tour. Seven of his 160 Israelis keep kosher, and the Hyatt Regency Dubai Creek Heights has scrambled to feed them.
“Fortunately, all the meats here are already halal, which is a huge advantage,” said Arun Narayanan, a food and beverage manager at the hotel, referring to Muslim rules of butchery that are similar to kosher requirements.
Still, the demand is likely to overwhelm supply for months to come. “I strongly recommend to not leave the crackers and tuna fish cans at home!” one Jewish travel site warned observant visitors to Dubai.
The Jewish Community Center, which previously served a tiny population of business visitors and residents, is staffing up from about five employees to about 30 as it becomes the help center for incoming Israelis, according Rabbi Mendel Duchman.
“We’re getting about 300 emails a day,” he said. Visitors want to know where they can eat and pray and find a mikvah, the ritual bath that observant women visit monthly. Looking at the boom times ahead, the JCC is preparing to build one befitting Dubai’s luxury standards. “It will probably be the nicest mikvah in the world,” Duchman said.
For Dubai’s first public Hanukkah, the JCC is holding a nightly extravaganza at the base of the 163-story Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Hundreds of Israelis dance, while the music of singers and a DJ flown in from Israel echo off the surrounding towers.
“I really think this is the best place to be a Jew,” Duchman said above the noise.
Most of the Israeli tourists are not particularly religious, leaving them free to tour over the Jewish Sabbath. Herzog had his tour at full speed Saturday, pinging via bus and water taxi from the Old City to the spice and gold souks to the sprawling Global Village cultural expo.
He has partnered with Norman Ali Khalaf, the self-described dean of Dubai tour guides. Israeli companies hired Khalaf to brief their own guides on the do’s and don’ts of travel in the conservative country (Don’t kiss in public. Don’t cut in lines. Shouting is frowned on and swearing can be fined).
Some tour companies are offering their clients a tutorial of their own, given that Israelis have a reputation even among themselves as boisterous visitors.
But it would be hard to imagine anyone more boisterous than Khalaf, who bounded aboard the bus wearing a Palestinian kaffiyeh around his head, greeting the group in booming Arabic and Hebrew. Within minutes, he was dancing in the aisle with a retired police officer from northern Israel.
Khalaf’s grandfather was a Muslim from Jaffa, now located in Israel, who married a Ukrainian Jew, and Khalaf considers himself emblematic of Dubai’s reputation for religious tolerance. He pointed out Hindu temples and Christian churches along the way.
At a small art gallery in the Old City, he described an oil portrait of the UAE’s first president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, as “our Ben Gurion,” referring to Israel’s founding father.
“I’m a Muslim Palestinian guiding Israeli Jews,” he said with a laugh, standing on the sidewalk with his tour sign held overhead, preparing to lead the way into the narrow lanes of the spice market. “That is a very Dubai thing.”