In August 2020, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country in many years to take a bold step and announce a peace treaty with Israel. September marks the second anniversary of the signing of the first agreements – the groundbreaking normalization agreements between Israel and the Gulf countries of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Treaties between other Arab nations and Israel followed, treaties with a country whose name did not even appear on maps of the region.
I remember when I first heard the news of the Accords. I’ve lived in Dubai for most of the last eight and a half years – it’s been an intensely emotional day. This remarkable country has come a long way since I arrived.
I remembered that just before moving there in early 2014, a long-time colleague in the area said to me, “I think it would be best if you don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. I knew they thought they were saying this for my own good and trying to protect me; however, I was unsure of what exactly. They explained, “Sometimes I hear conversations, and I just think it would be better for you if others didn’t know you’re Jewish.
And so, I packed my bags and left New York with the hope that my Jewish heritage wouldn’t be at the forefront of my time in the Middle East. I hid my identity during my early years. Somehow people figured it out; this led to a series of awkward, humorous and, unfortunately, sometimes serious and disturbing encounters – as people learned my identity and had questions, comments and statements. These encounters happened with a diverse group of people from across the region, not Emiratis.
Then the Accords happened – a “miracle in the desert”. Why did this happen? With its longstanding commitment to progress, the UAE has chosen a path of cooperation based on the nation’s belief in tolerance and acceptance as fundamental elements of its Islamic faith. The Accords are named after Abraham, the common patriarch of the world’s three major religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
What’s amazing is that religion can serve as a unifier – bringing people from different backgrounds together – and not as a divider. You would think otherwise if you rely solely on the headlines you read in mainstream and social media.
Here’s a look at what happened then and what we’ve learned since.
First, Muslims and Jews can get along. The Abraham Accords differ from the treaties that preceded them. Peace “from people to people” strengthens the Accords. It is a mandate to look at what unites us rather than what divides us. It was successful because the Jewish community now interacts regularly with Muslims and Arabs, and other religious communities. The celebrations shared over the past two years testify to this. Interfaith groups have come together to celebrate not only Iftar and Suhoor, but also to bake challah (Jewish ceremonial bread) and celebrate the Jewish holidays of Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and more.
And then there is the recent wedding of Rabbi Levi Duchman and Lea Hadad in Abu Dhabi, which coincides perfectly with the second anniversary of the agreements, with more than 1,500 people in attendance and Jews and Muslims dancing together, sharing the celebration.
Second, the peace has been amazing for business – trade and tourism between the Abraham Accord countries are on the rise. The Abraham Accords could potentially create up to 4 million new jobs and $1 trillion in new economic activity in its first decade, according to the Rand Foundation
Tourism and services are booming. However, even excluding them, trade between Arab countries in the Middle East and Israel increased by 234% in the first seven months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, according to the Abraham Accords Peace Institute. Trade between the United Arab Emirates and Israel increased from $50.8 million in the first seven months of 2020 to $613.9 million in 2021.
Contrary to typical rhetoric, faith can be a unifying factor, even among people and cultures of different faiths. I challenge the media to report such stories with more nuance, less partisan vigor and more respect for the positive values of faith and spirituality itself.
When I look back on how things have changed since I started in the United Arab Emirates, I am proud to be part of this new era of peace. Just look at what unites us to change the narrative.
Jean Candiotte is an Emmy-nominated writer and producer and a leader of the Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates. She contributed to the book Celebrating Tolerance: Religious Diversity in the United Arab Emirates.