Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Tel Aviv and Dubai

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.


David said...

I think the problem is that when we try for things that seem "deeper" than technology and business and the material/biological quality of our lives, conflict is the inevitable result. History and identity become about cherishing grievances. Religion becomes about playing the mean old cleric who forces others to follow religious rules (and in Islamic countries, democracy always reveals the basically unbridgeable gulf between the religious and the secular, and fails because of that gulf). Justice for one person leads to injustice for another (or the perception of injustice, which in the practice of democracy amounts to the same thing).

I don't think this is something brought to us by modernity. It seems to me a perennial human dilemma. What modernity has brought is democratized comfort as a meaningful alternative. I suspect we don't give democratized comfort, and the spreading of it, enough credit as a kind of deep, even spiritual alternative to other things we think of as deep or spiritual or true or good. A book I'm using in my classes contrasts pre-modern laundry with washing machines. When you think about it, there's something quite beautiful about making it so that humans don't have to carry and heat 50 gallons of water for every load.

John said...

I am of course a great devotee of washing machines, flower gardens, and the other pleasures of bourgeois life. All hail the pleasant life!

But the desire for a pleasant life always seems to war with those other impulses -- Thanatos, in Freud's term: intense devotion to abstract causes, violent struggle, insistence on impossible purity.

So the question Friedman's piece raises about the Middle East is whether a pleasant life is really attainable for many of the people, or if their world will inevitably be dragged back into war and terrorism. Is this dream really sustainable against a background of corrupt autocracy and violent fanaticism?

Shadow said...

"When you think about it, there's something quite beautiful about making it so that humans don't have to carry and heat 50 gallons of water for every load."

Or having to scrub the hide off the clothes because the only power available is your own horsepower. There are few chores more demanding and tiring, especially in pre-electrified communities where land is worked by hand and clothes get filthy (pre-modern laundry).

David said...


I suppose the Friedman piece does raise those questions, but the question I got out of your original post was more a rueful, "Is that all there is?" Perhaps I missed something.