Don’t promote democracy, talk about the royal families or comment on treatment of foreign workers.
Israel is advising tourism professionals and businesspeople to avoid discussing those and other sensitive political topics with residents of the United Arab Emirates, as it protects its new peace deal with the Gulf Arab country and promotes new daily flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv, launched last week.
“United Arab Emirates: Do and Do Not,” the tourism ministry’s 29-page Hebrew-language advisory published Nov. 8, is the first public Israeli government comment on the issue of Emirati political freedoms, but it stops short of criticizing alleged abuses.
“The United Arab Emirates is not a democratic country and it is not acceptable to speak about democracies as a preferred model of government,” the advisory says. It also recommends “not to speak to Emiratis about the royal families,” “avoid speaking about local politics” and “avoid speaking about government or state policy towards foreign workers.”
The ministry says the guidelines are not government policy but cultural sensitivity tips aimed primarily at Israeli tourism operators preparing to receive Emirati visitors, whenever Israel lifts its COVID-19 ban on incoming tourism. It aims for 100,000 Gulf visitors in the coming years, with many expected to visit Islam’s third-holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Although the two countries shared quiet ties for years, it’s largely a new cultural encounter. Israeli passport-holders traveled in special delegations by invitation only, and Emiratis were not previously known to visit Israel.
The deputy mayor of Jerusalem has asked Israeli officials to update security protocols at the airport, where Arab and Muslim visitors regularly face stringent questioning, so anticipated Emirati visitors will receive a warmer welcome.
The tourism ministry is also offering some recommended “do’s”: Praise the UAE’s accomplishments in the Middle East. Use the term “female empowerment” instead of “feminism.” Set up business meetings with Emiratis at least three weeks in advance. Hotels seeking Emirati guests should consider setting up separate swimming areas for men and women.
The advisory also includes a code of conduct on dress and customs for Israelis traveling to the UAE for business. Airlines are introducing multiple daily nonstop flights.
The new route to Dubai is fueling a buzz for travel-hungry Israelis marooned at home during the pandemic and eager to visit a part of the region previously off-limits. The UAE is one of just a few destinations Israel allows residents to visit without quarantining upon return.
The author of the advisory, Yossi Mann, says Emiratis — governed by dynastic rulers with limited elections for an advisory council — are wary about dysfunctional political systems and failed democracy movements and prefer a system of tribal family affiliations. He worries that raising sensitive political topics could cast a shadow on the Israel-Emirates peace deal, signed in September, which he calls a breakthrough in Jewish-Muslim relations after years of hostility.
“They’re still a traditional society. They’re doing huge progress for them and they should do it step by step,” says Mann, a senior lecturer in Mideast studies at Bar Ilan University, researcher at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and a consultant to oil and gas companies in the region. “Because I believe there is a new era between Jews and Muslims, I think we should be sensitive to them. They are making a courageous step.”
Israel is also worried its citizens could misbehave while vacationing in the UAE.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the Israeli advisory.
The State Department’s travel advisory for U.S. citizens in the UAE offers similar advice on behavior and dress, and warns travelers they could be arrested or deported for “making derogatory statements about the UAE, the royal families, the local governments or other people.” But unlike Israel, the U.S. has also reported human rights concerns there.
The UAE has promoted religious tolerance and female politicians, and, this month, allowed unmarried couples to live together and relaxed alcohol bans. But it bans political parties and labor unions, arrests democracy advocates and government critics, criminalizes gay sex and has not effectively prevented abuse of foreign workers, who make up the majority of the population, according to the State Department.
Analysts and activists in both Israel and the Gulf criticized the Israeli approach.
“Gulf citizens are worldly and engage in the topics that the Israeli government is steering its tourists from,” says Bader Al-Saif, a Kuwait-based fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center. “It’s how one engages in these topics that would matter.”
“The message is: be silent. If you want to go to the UAE, and have a collaboration with them, don’t talk about anything that would light a fuse,” says Eitay Mack, a left-wing Israeli human rights lawyer.
If the oil-rich Gulf country begins to invest in Israeli universities and institutions, he warns it could quash Israeli criticism of Gulf policy, much as Chinese investments in Australian universities are alleged to have led to pro-China censorship.
“After the UAE … bring all their money, it will be much harder to do this discussion. Now is the time to set the rules,” Mack says.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a progressive Israeli think tank, says Israel is expected to lobby for Emirati interests in Washington as it has done with Egypt and Jordan, and already reportedly mediated the sale of Israeli spyware to Emirati officials to track dissidents.
“Israeli citizens should question this alliance with an authoritarian regime,” Tsurkov says. “Most countries around world have normal relations with these regimes. But not all countries go and do lobbying work on behalf of those regimes. Not all countries sell spyware to hack into phones of activists.”
In August, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the UAE was an “advanced democracy” in an interview with an Emirati TV news channel. He posted it to Twitter, then deleted it shortly after.
Sami Sockol contributed to this story from Jerusalem.