Israel to take part in Dubai’s Expo 2020

Ami Marom, the Israeli founder of normalizing outfit Gulf Red Med, in Bahrain in January. (Facebook)

Israel will participate in next year’s Expo 2020 in the United Arab Emirates despite there being no formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Dubai will be hosting delegations from about 190 nations to experience the “UAE’s values of inclusion, tolerance and cooperation,” according to the exposition’s website.

Israel’s foreign ministry announced the country’s participation, adding that it looks “forward to sharing our innovative spirit and the advances our entrepreneurs and innovators are making in the various fields such as water, information and medical technologies.”

In a tweet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Israel’s participation, calling it “another expression of Israel’s rising status in the world and the region.”

US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt also celebrated the Gulf country’s invitation to Israel, calling the United Arab Emirates a “great friend and ally.”

Emirati officials told Israeli media that the invite “does not signal a change in relations between the UAE and Israel in the diplomatic arena or any other area.”

The invitation is only the most recent sign of warming ties in a growing blitz of covert and overt normalization between Gulf states and Israel.

Saudi Arabia has been paving the way for Israel’s embrace by rulers in the region, with a mutual enmity towards Iran at the core of warming relations.

Predicting more normalization

While UAE collaboration with Israel dates back to the 1990s, it has been moving out of the shadows as of recently, with Gulf elites and politicians calling for open ties.

Last month, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash condemned the lack of formal ties between Arab states and Israel in an interview with UAE newspaper The National.

“Many, many years ago, when there was an Arab decision not to have contact with Israel, that was a very, very wrong decision, looking back,” he said.

“Because clearly, you have to really dissect and divide between having a political issue and keeping your lines of communication open.”

According to the newspaper, Gargash alluded to more normalizing gestures between Arab states and Israel, “such as small bilateral deals and visits by politicians and sports players” in the next few years.

That statement serves as confirmation that supposedly cultural or sporting ties are part of a larger political design to normalize ties with Israel despite its escalating violations of Palestinian rights.

In October, Israel’s sports and culture minister Miri Regev visited the Emirates along with her country’s judo team, and cried with emotion as the Israeli national anthem was played in Abu Dhabi.

The Israeli politician also paid a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – the largest in the United Arab Emirates – boasting that it was the first time an Israeli government minister had visited the shrine.

Gargash said that a “strategic shift” must take place, adding that “if we continue on the current trajectory, I think the conversation in 15 years time will really be about equal rights in one state.”

The Emirati minister’s remarks almost acknowledge the reality of the one-state solution as the only viable option for peace, but fail to mention that holding Israel accountable for atrocities by refusing to normalize relations is crucial to achieving a just resolution.

Earlier this year, UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan defended Israel’s so called “right to defend itself” when asked about Israel’s military attacks on Syria in a video of a closed-door meeting at a Warsaw conference leaked and then deleted by Netanyahu’s office.

The video showed officials from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spewing invective against Iran and defending Israel.

Billionaire calls for formal ties

Meanwhile, Dubai-based billionaire Khalaf Al Habtoor posted videos on social media last month calling on Gulf countries and Israel to open full relations.

In videos posted to Twitter in English and Arabic, Al Habtoor prefaces his remarks by saying he expects mockery from those “who speak of nationalisms and of resistance,” but that despite this he wants “to talk about Israel.”

Al Habtoor states that there is “no country economically stronger than Israel,” and that Gulf countries must “cooperate with them economically, commercially, agriculturally and even in the area of defense” as well as “every single thing.”

He asserts that Israel is “not our enemy,” and that “Netanyahu and his group must decide on this issue and declare overt peace instead of hiding,” making the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel “one big family.”

Al Habtoor says nothing about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and violations of international law, nor that these should be ended before moving towards fully normalized relations. In any case, the Emirati billionaire does not see Israel as a regional threat, but rather as an ally.

“We have to be clear and frank and they are better than others. Our biggest enemy is Iran, not Israel,” he says in the Arabic-language video, which was promoted on Israel’s Arabic-language propaganda Twitter account:

Al Habtoor does not mention Iran in the English-language video. He posted two more videos a few days later doubling down on his original remarks.

With more than $3 billion in family and company assets, Al Habtoor is one of the richest people in the United Arab Emirates.

He is a founder of Al Habtoor Group, a conglomerate that built Dubai International Airport and numerous high-rises in the city, as well as being a dealer in luxury cars.

The Dubai billionaire published a piece in Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz last year urging Arabs to “deal with” Israel, and Palestinians and neighboring countries to “put a lid” on their “emotional baggage and bad experience” and to move forward because “Israel with its nuclear weapons and military might is going nowhere.”

In the Haaretz piece, Al Habtoor affirms that Palestinians and Israelis “must coexist in one state as equal citizens with the same rights,” but does not demand Israeli respect for Palestinian rights as a condition for economic, political, technological and military cooperation.

Israel and the UAE participated in the Iniohos 2019 joint military exercises last month hosted by Greece, as they did in the past two years.

The Israeli air force has killed and injured thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, and the United Arab Emirates air force has done the same in Yemen.

Last July, Israeli media reported that the Israeli military hosted members of the Emirates armed forces.

The Israeli military denied those claims.

Bahrain hosts Israelis

Despite allegedly canceling its participation in a conference in Bahrain, an Israeli delegation appears to have traveled to the Gulf island state’s capital Manama late last month, according to Israeli media.

Israel’s economy minister Eli Cohen was supposed to be heading the 30-person delegation, which included Israeli government officials and business people, but the delegation announced its withdrawal after widespread protests against its visit.

The Israelis were set to participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Congress.

Ami Marom, the Israeli founder of normalizing outfit Gulf Red Med, posted pictures and videos on Facebook showing his group attending the conference, as it was set to do.

In one post, Marom claims that the Bahraini government paid for the group’s $500 dinner.

Marom has been posting pictures and videos of his stay in Bahrain for the past two weeks, spending time in luxurious hotels and restaurants around the city.

It is not clear what Marom is still doing in Manama, with his most recent post dating from 1 May.

Marom posted pictures in Bahrain that date back to January, as well as some in Muscat, the capital of Oman.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.