The rich Gulf nation is making significant moves towards religious tolerance in recent years. These policies are shaking up the Muslim world.
Sheikh Nahyan Mabarak Al Nahyan (left in white), UAE Minister of Tolerance, welcoming Mahant Swami Maharaj, the head of the BAPS Swaminarayan order to the UAE in 2019.
Diplomacy is rarely dramatic but there are moments where an image can promise a new era. Two such images have appeared now in recent months. The first were images of the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi in December 2021, and now similar images have appeared with the Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog meeting Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. Both visits were the first-ever by top Israeli leaders to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Israel and the UAE mended relations with Israel, long impaired by the Palestinian conflict, in late 2020 through negotiations mediated by the United States between Israel and Arab states called the Abraham Accords. In these meetings the two sides have expressed support for one another and cooperation which, for the UAE, came at a particularly delicate time when it had been attacked, through drones and missiles upon Abu Dhabi, by Iran-backed Houthi militia fighting the Saudi Arabia-backed coalition in the now seven-year-long civil war in Yemen.
While the importance of the civil and security exchange between Israel and the UAE, as discussed in these meetings, have been studied, the UAE’s social trajectory that they underline has been less studied.
Simply, the UAE is today the most liberal among the Gulf states, and while it remains an Islamic monarchy, it has taken new leaps of imagination of what is possible in terms of religious tolerance in recent years.
The UAE now has a small but growing population of Jews whose Hanukkah celebrations at the business hub of Dubai in 2020 prompted the Jerusalem Post newspaper to ask, ‘Will UAE be safer and more tolerant for Jews than most of Europe?’ Newspaper reports in Israel have noted that unlike growing number of attacks on Jews in Europe and America (where attacks on Jews and synagogues have been growing), the UAE offers an altogether different vision and a safe haven for Jews. In one of the latest major incidents of antisemitic violence in America, in January 2022, an armed British-Muslim assailant held Jewish worshippers’ hostage at a synagogue in Texas demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist jailed in America for collaborating with the Al Qaida terror group and plotting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. The Anti-Defamation League, the US-based NGO, has noted that antisemitic violence is at a near all-time high in the US at the moment with more than 2,000 recorded acts of violence and harassment in 2021, up 21 per cent in 2020.
In sharp contrast, in 2020, the first open Hannukah was celebrated in the UAE with Dubai’s landmark Burj Khalifa tower lighting up to highlight the festival on its first night (Hanukkah is celebrated across eight nights and days). In March 2022, Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau visited the UAE where he met UAE’s Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan along with the UAE Rabbi Levi Duchman.
Hinduism in the UAE has had a similar trajectory in the recent past. The first large-scale Hindu temple opened in Abu Dhabi in 2020. Land for the Gujarat-headquartered BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha temple was donated by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. An older, small temple has existed in Dubai since the late 1950s.
In 2019, the year that was declared as the Year of Tolerance by UAE, a pope visited the Arabian Peninsula for the first time in two thousand years. Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE was a key highlight of UAE underlining religious tolerance as a defining attribute of the country.
Not only did the pope visit UAE, but he also held mass for the country’s Christians, and a dialogue with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, which is the highest seat of learning for Sunni Muslims.
And in 2017, the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed renamed a prominent mosque which carried his name to Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque, emphasizing the values of religious tolerance. This of course after a special position was created of Minister of Tolerance in the UAE government in 2016.
A study by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) has found that even before the Abraham Accords, Emirati textbooks were already pitching religious tolerance and removing antisemitic tropes common in other parts of the Middle East.
Today entering the biggest mosque in the region, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one passes wall after wall showing leaders of the country embracing leaders of different faiths and consistently promoting the idea that the country embraces religious equanimity.
UAE’s increasing push towards promoting religious diversity and harmony has been analysed in many ways including the fact that it wishes to transition to a uniquely investor-friendly destination not only in the Middle East but also anywhere in the world and expand this vision of relatively liberal economic prosperity from Dubai to across the Emirates. The UAE is made up of seven emirates – Abu Dhabi (the capital), Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Umm Al Quwain. It is an elective monarchy where each emirate is ruled by an emir and one of them is elected as the President of UAE.
Traditionally Dubai has been seen as the most liberal and investor-friendly area in the Middle East, a sort of Singapore of the Persian Gulf, but in recent times, Abu Dhabi has been catching up in reputation.
But beyond attracting investment, something deeper is happening in the UAE – it is showcasing how an effective transition to moderation can happen at the heart (and in wealthiest part) of the Islamic world.
This is historic and is having ramifications far beyond the Gulf region.