Tom Friedman is fascinated by the budding tries between Israel and the UAE that have sprung up since Jared Kushner brokered a deal between these nations in October (New York Times). Since then, 130,000 Israelis have flown from Tel Aviv to Dubai, and this in the midst of a pandemic.
Something big seems to be stirring. Unlike the peace breakthroughs between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Lebanon’s Christians and Israel and Jordan, which were driven from the top and largely confined there, the openings between Israel and the Gulf States — while initiated from the top to build an alliance against Iran — are now being driven even more from the bottom, by tourists, students and businesses.
A new Hebrew language school that holds classes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi has been swamped with Emiratis wanting to study in Israel or do business there. Israel’s Mekorot National Water Company just finalized a deal to provide Bahrain with desalination technology for brackish water. The Times of Israel recently ran an article about Elli Kriel in Dubai, who “has become the go-to kosher chef in the U.A.E. … Last year, Kriel launched Kosherati, which sells kosher-certified Emirati cuisine, as well as fusion Jewish-Emirati dishes.” And, by the way, those 130,000 Israeli visitors helped to save the U.A.E.’s tourist industry from being crushed by the pandemic during the crucial holiday season.
This is certainly encouraging; better tourism and business deals than missile bombardment. It is also important, I think, that so much of this is being driven by governments in the region rather than dictated by great powers.
On the other hand, it all rests on accepting that some problems simply can't be solved now. The status of Palestinian refugees, the political rights of people in Arab autocracies, peace with Iran; all that is set aside. The liberating dream of the Arab Spring is forgotten. Instead, we're all going to get on with our careers and try to get rich.
As I have said before, this is pretty much all the world has to offer millions of people. Democracy is either not in the offing or, if it does come, partial, contested, unstable, and unbeloved. (Russia, Thailand, Burma, Ethiopia, Egypt, etc.) It is not at all clear to me that people in Tunis are in a meaningful way more free than people in Saigon (yes, that's what people who live there call it). In both places politics is mostly frustration, and while Vietnam is a dictatorship, Saigon has a booming business scene and double-digit economic growth.
What is our civilization really good at, other than science and capitalism?
So it makes perfect sense to me that if there is going to be a thaw between Israel and the Arab world it would take place between businessmen. No Arab is going to study Hebrew out of love, but it seems plenty will for a chance to get rich.
Sometimes, you take what you can get.