Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the director of public health at the Israeli Health Ministry, now knows that Israeli stand-up comedy doesn’t work well in the United Arab Emirates and that some jokes need to be explained. Last week she cynically remarked that “more people have died in two weeks of peace with Dubai than in 70 years of war with them.”
Her barbs were directed at the Israeli government for its slowness in barring airline passengers infected with the coronavirus who were arriving in Israel from the UAE. But in Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, they thought the criticism was directed at them and that they were being accused of causing the spike in Israel’s COVID-19 infections and deaths.
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The diplomatic flap is over at this point. The UAE asked for clarification, the Israeli government apologized and relations between Israel and its new ally returned to normal.
They don’t joke about the coronavirus in Dubai, particularly following the two blows that the UAE just sustained in quick succession. The first came from Denmark, which barred flights to and from the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, due to what the Danish Health Ministry said were “imprecisions” found in coronavirus test results. And that was after Abu Dhabi declared that it was leading the world in testing, having instituted strict oversight and taken steps to prevent the spread of the virus.
On Friday, the second blow came, when the British put the UAE on their list of high-infection “red” countries and banned flights to and from Britain. So far, talks between the countries have not helped matters. Australians who had already ordered tickets for flights from Britain to Australia via the UAE have been stuck in Britain, as have many Asian passengers who usually fly via Dubai.
The UAE is making major efforts to halt the spread of the virus. It has issued a long list of social-distancing rules. It is imposing fines for violations, and it’s vaccinating its population at a dizzying pace.
Media in the UAE have been sharply critical of negative comments from abroad about the government’s handling of the virus. “Leave us alone. We know how to take care of ourselves,” one article shot back. “Is it jealousy over a country that appears to have been very successful in halting the pandemic that has led media outlets in the West to harm the country’s reputation?”
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Other local media reaction accused the critics of ulterior motives unrelated to public health, with the aim of harming the country’s interests.
The Emiratis have recently had good reason to suspect that someone is out to make trouble for the country. The decision by U.S. President Joe Biden to “temporarily” suspend the arms deal with the UAE that the Trump administration signed a day before President Trump left office has sparked major anger in Abu Dhabi. The American explanation that it was an accepted practice in the transition from one administration to another – as part of a larger effort to review all of the arms deals signed during Trump’s term – didn’t mollify the UAE.
The UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, went out of his way to demonstrate understanding of the Biden administration’s move, noting that it did not mean the deal was off. “As in previous transitions, the UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration,” Al-Otaiba said in a statement, adding that “the F-35 package is much more than selling military hardware to a partner.” The ambassador explained that the agreement was also important to the United States because it would be “freeing U.S. assets for other global challenges.”
In other words, the UAE is presenting itself as a military arm of the U.S. administration and saying that it is looking after the well-being of countries in the region. “With the same equipment and training, U.S. and UAE forces are more effective together when and where it matters,” the ambassador said.
The envoy drew on the best of his diplomatic skills to conceal the surprise and anger, characterizing the suspension as a routine step. The Emiratis had even anticipated this with understanding, it was claimed, and were not concerned that the sale would be cancelled after it had gone through all the authorizations. That, of course, includes approval by Israel.
But the ruler of the UAE, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, also realizes that as opposed to Trump’s time in office, in calling the White House, he now might find himself put on hold, and that reliance on Israel to communicate with Biden might also turn out to be an unsteady prospect.
Israel appears to now find itself in a new, paradoxical situation in which it will not only be asked to approve arms sales to an Arab country, but will also be required to expend major effort to get the deal through. And that’s not only due to its security aspects.
Here’s another reason. On Saturday it was announced that a historic amendment was made to the UAE’s citizenship law. From now on, investors, people in professions in demand, doctors, scientists and even artists and intellectuals from around the world will able to acquire Emirati citizenship.
The law requires that applicants not only have the requisite profession, but also a global reputation. It will include famous artists who have proven themselves and scientists who have been recognized through awards or who have years of international funding to their credit. Furthermore, applicants will be able to retain their original citizenship although they will be required to declare their loyalty to the UAE. Such citizenship, by the way, can be conferred not only on the applicants themselves but upon their families. The law also allows anyone defined as having a “unique talent” to receive citizenship, including people who have registered at least one patent for an invention and artists who have won prestigious international awards.
The applicants’ talents will be scrutinized by a special committee and, at least at the moment, there are no restrictions on the applicant’s country of origin. For Israelis, this could provide an opportunity not only to work in the UAE but to hold citizenship that theoretically might permit them to visit countries off limits to Israelis.
But that’s all on the condition that the UAE’s peace agreement with Israel remains in place and that it’s not upended by some little deal over F-35 jets.