A rising tide of cultural tolerance in the UAE as it approaches its 50th year

The UAE is investing billions into its creative industries ahead of Expo 2020

Moroccan artist and jewelry designer Chama Mechtaly, whose roots have both Jewish and Muslim branches, is creating her cross-cultural work in, of all places, the Dubai Design District in the heart of the United Arab Emirates. Her fine jewelry pieces shed light on Morocco’s unique Jewish history and connection with Andalusia, where during the Middle Ages Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in religious harmony.

“Jewelry as an ambassador to peace,” was how Mechtaly put it in a recent interview with Jewish Insider.

Thoufeek Zakriya, a young Indian Muslim hotelier originally from the southern state of Kochi who was fascinated by his home city’s historic Jewish community, is incorporating Jewish references into his Islamic calligraphy. The Dubai-based artist will likely be included in a calligraphy exhibition Mechtaly is helping to organize over the next year that will — presumably for the first time — bring together Israeli and Emirati artists.

“Until recently, I was not sure if it was OK for me to create my art here in Hebrew or participate in Jewish functions, let alone travel to Israel from Dubai,” Zakriya told JI. “Now I am able to openly create my calligraphy in Arabic and Hebrew.” 

In June, “We Remember,” an exhibition about the victims of the Holocaust, opened at Dubai’s Crossroads of Civilizations Museum. A section of the exhibition was dedicated to Muslims who rescued Jews during World War II.

All of this nascent cultural flowering between Israelis and Emiratis, Jews and Muslims, is a result of the historic Abraham Accords, which were signed a year ago and normalized relations between Israel, the UAE and several other Arab nations. Over the last year, a picture has begun to emerge of a cultural exchange that could provide rich benefits for both nations, and be a different kind of normalization model than Israel’s “cold” peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.

Chama Mechtaly and one of her designs (Courtesy)

The rapprochement between the UAE and Israel, which has been some years in the making, signaled immediate changes in the Emirates: Hebrew could suddenly be heard in shopping malls and hotels; men wearing yarmulkes were a frequent sight, and kosher food was on the menu at major commercial outlets as thousands of Israelis flocked to do business or simply vacation in the Gulf Arab nation. An Israel-American startup trying to bring date syrup to America and beyond recently inked a deal with the UAE’s largest date manufacturer. And on June 29, the UAE welcomed its first Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital city.

“We underscore our enthusiasm over what we hope will be the first of many high-level visits,” said the Emirati Culture and Knowledge Development Minister Noura Al Kaabi at the opening of the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi. “It is essential that we prepare ourselves and our children toward a new world,” she says, quoting the UAE’s longtime ruler and founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Al Kaabi stressed the importance of collaborations between the two nations on artificial intelligence, smart cities, COVID-19, trade and tourism.

A Vision of Tolerance

Events over the last few years in the UAE indicate the warming of ties between Israel and the Gulf nation as the Emirates prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of their unification and the country’s founding. The UAE declared 2019 the “Year of Tolerance,” with the aim of making itself a global capital for “tolerance, co-existence and cooperation.” In September 2019, Abu Dhabi announced it would be building a mammoth complex that will house a synagogue, a church and a mosque. Called the Abrahamic House, the colossal complex, which was designed by acclaimed architect Sir David Adjaye, will be located on Saadiyat Island near to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is slated to open in 2022.

Then came the Abraham Accords, marking a historic milestone for the UAE and the Middle East as a whole.

In June, Abu Dhabi announced that it would pump an additional $6 billion in cultural and creative industries on top of the $2.3 billion already committed as part of its post-pandemic stimulus program. “In terms of growth, we know the creative industries are going to be a major contributor to GDP in Abu Dhabi,” Mohammed Al-Mubarak, who heads Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), told the Financial Times.

Apart from the cultural industry’s lucrative prospects, it is also the most likely arena to foster dialogue regarding ideas of coexistence, diversity, tolerance and religious pluralism. “The UAE is built on the values of acceptance and respect, which DCT Abu Dhabi promotes through its cultural, creative and tourism initiatives, and these values are adopted at all times,” said H.E. Saood Al Hosani, undersecretary of DCT Abu Dhabi. “The forthcoming Abrahamic Family House will stand as a beacon within the Saadiyat Cultural District for harmonious and interconnected faiths followed by over half the world’s population. Whatever the time pre, during or post-normalization — our cultural partnerships have the power to showcase and promote artistic talent and creative thinking for all participating partners.”

In many ways, the cultural implementation of the Accords reflects on the history of the Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, dating back to biblical times. 

A New Cultural Renaissance?

As new cultural synergies start to take place between Jews, Israelis and UAE residents, the collaborations are moving ahead. Israeli collectors are opening galleries in Dubai; performing artists, singers and musicians from Israel are giving shows at the Dubai Opera, collaborating with other Arab and Emirati artists; and at the upcoming (pandemic postponed) Expo 2020 opening in October, Israel will have its own pavilion, while other local artists, even those not of the Jewish faith, are creating artwork about tolerance between Jews and Muslims.

Expo 2020 is an example of the UAE’s strive to bring the world together despite cultural differences as well as put women at the forefront of such great change. In a recent statement, Hind Alowais, vice president of participant management at Expo 2020, emphasized the UAE’s commitment to women’s empowerment. Expo 2020 will feature a Women’s Pavilion in collaboration with Cartier, marking the first time in over 50 years that a world expo has a pavilion dedicated to women. 

“You cannot imagine having this Expo without paying tribute to women who have played a significant role in nation-building,” she said during “Women behind Expo,” a webinar organised by the UAE Embassy in Washington, D.C., for Emirati Women’s Day on August 26. Alowais also stressed how the topic of female equality was core to Expo 2020’s mission of bringing together nations, thought leaders, NGOs, and private and public entities. 

An example is the Dubai-based Moroccan artist and jewelry designer Mechtaly, who is fostering aesthetic bridges between Jews and Muslims. Through her visual art and jewelry design she seeks to shine a light on Morocco’s unique Jewish history and connection with Andalusia, where for several hundred years during the Middle Ages, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in religious harmony. Her brand Moors & Saints, headquartered in Dubai Design District, is a fine jewelry start-up offering products inspired by Moorish design and architecture. It’s artwork with coexistence in mind. Her collections reference a spectrum of multi-religious heritage sites, including Alhambra, the Great Mosque, Cathedral of Cordoba, and the Al Qarawiyyin University.

“Our focus is to highlight the shared values and aesthetics between Jews and Muslims through the written word and recall a golden time when Hebrew and Arabic developed in close proximity in Andalusia and Sephardic Jews emulated the works of Moorish poets of the Arabic language,” Mechtaly told JI. “It’s important to remind people of the potential that Muslim-Jewish synergy can unlock and to use this historic moment to reduce the rifts between both cultures as well as build more trust and interdependence. Securing and sustaining peace and prosperity in the region will depend on whether we build the right cultural foundation for this post-Abrahamic Accords era or not.”  

Mechtaly is working in conjunction with the Jerusalem Biennale to bring Israel and UAE-based artists together for the first time through a calligraphy exhibition and residency program in Jerusalem, Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the next year.

Zakriya, the calligraphy artist, grew up in southwest India, wondering about the historic Jewish community in Kochi, a city in India’s coastal state of Kerala. His interest sparked his desire to better understand the history of Kochi. An Indian Muslim who does calligraphy in Hebrew, Arabic and other Semitic languages, Zakriya believes in forging peace and tolerance through art.

 “The diplomatic relations between Israel and UAE,” he told JI, “is something great for me on a personal level.”

Another collaboration that has come into fruition post-normalization is the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum, co-founded by three women: Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, entrepreneur Justine Zwerling and PR strategist Ariella Steinreich. Established as the first association bringing together female leaders from across the Middle East, under the auspices of the UAE-Israel Business Council, the forum currently has over 100 leaders from a variety of professional fields and helps foster personal and professional connections that embrace our shared values.

Local Jewish men dress up as Emiratis to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim at The Address Hotel Marina on February 25, 2021 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Dressing up as an Emirati is a popular Purim costume this year due to the excitement around the Abraham Accords, the new peace agreement signed in 2020 between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. (Photo by Andrea DiCenzo/Getty Images)

“What started as a small organic movement has now grown to include women from non-Abraham Accords countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” said Steinreich. 

“People are so excited about the partnership [between the UAE and Israel] that they are just running towards each other, and we see that in every aspect of life,” Hassan-Nahoum told JI from Jerusalem. “People are just searching for those points of connection. We have seen it in business, in sports and now in cultural activities. And culture leads on this as it is a crucial point of connection.”

In June, “We Remember,” an exhibition about the victims of the Holocaust, opened at Dubai’s Crossroads of Civilizations Museum, an institution located in the historic Shindagha area of Bur Dubai. It marked the first exhibition on the Holocaust in the Gulf. A section of the exhibition was dedicated to Muslims who rescued Jews during WWII. Ahmed Obaid Almansoori, the Emirati founder of the museum, worked with Yael Grafy, originally from Israel and the museum’s new chief operating officer, to convey the horrors of the Holocaust.

Lingering Clouds of Resistance

Despite the positive messaging surrounding the Abraham Accords, some residents in the UAE speak of the challenges facing the cultural scene post-normalization. “Many Arabs here still feel angered at the lack of resolution over the Palestinian issue, particularly after the violence that took place in May,” said a local Emirati working in culture who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “From day one this was a purely Israel-UAE accord and Palestine did not factor in whatsoever. It was purely pragmatic, purely strategic and the Palestine element was ignored.”

After the Accords’ signing, a group of UAE-based art professionals decided to come together to create a cultural foundation based in Dubai to unify various cultural practitioners throughout the Gulf around ideas concerning culture in the Arab world post-normalization, and the question of Palestinian rights. 

“Our aim was to bring Palestine into the equation again because it was sidelined in the Accords and we thought if we could explore the challenges through cultural initiatives we could find a way forward,” the Emirati added. “But we couldn’t make it happen. On the UAE side we found that individuals wanted nothing to do with ideas about normalization. Cultural practitioners, staunchly, even those who sympathized with our mission, refused to take part.”

Artwork by Thoufeek Zakriya (Courtesy)

The art and culture scene in the UAE has what Emirati cultural entrepreneur Gaith Abdalla calls “humanitarian ideas.” For this reason, he believes it will be challenging for Israeli arts practitioners to engage with the UAE scene unless they do it cross-culturally, with Arabs and Israelis and, he stresses, with Palestinians.

“In order to engage with the scene here you need to share its same humanitarian values,” Abdalla told JI. “If you are not an individual that believes in the humanitarian rights of the Palestinians then it will be hard for you to interact with the arts and cultural community here.”

Backlash has made some members of the UAE cultural scene hesitant to speak about the issue.

Still, Israeli gallerists such as Charly Darwich are looking ahead and excited to open in Dubai at the end of the year. Alongside the Israeli artists he will exhibit, he also hopes to stage shows bringing together Arab and Israeli artists.

“If I were to offer recommendations for an Israeli arts practitioner coming to Dubai, I would tell them to bring Palestinian artists with them, then they’d have more success,” said Abdalla.

“There are many positive stories to tell, but so far what you hear in the media is just about the business and economic deals—the human element is lacking,” added Mechtaly. “Palestinian representation is not really talked about and that is part of the problem and people think that if we don’t talk about what is happening it will go away. It doesn’t work like that. There are a lot of extremely progressive movements in Israel that have been fighting for Palestinian rights. It’s important to convey all of these nuances.”

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