Israelis are traveling in droves to the United Arab Emirates for work and pleasure, filling up the first-ever direct commercial flights between the two countries in pursuit of new opportunities in the Persian Gulf despite heightened tensions in the region.
The U.A.E. hosts a fairly large Iranian population and has regular direct flights from Iran, raising Israeli concerns that its citizens could be targeted by Tehran there in the wake of the killing of a top Iranian scientist last month.
Iran has blamed Israel for the Nov. 27 killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, considered the father of the country’s nuclear program, and has vowed revenge.
Israel hasn’t confirmed or denied its involvement. It urged its citizens to stay vigilant and avoid crowded public areas in the U.A.E., citing the threat of Iranian attacks.
For now, those threats haven’t dissuaded Israeli investors such as Dorian Barak from traveling to the U.A.E.
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“A lot of people have asked me if I feel safe going now given what’s going on, including my family,” said Mr. Barak, founder of the U.A.E.-Israel Business Council. “Although retribution is always threatened, you still have a much greater chance dying from a car accident or Covid or a freak illness than an Iranian revenge attack.”
Israel in September signed agreements to establish diplomatic relations with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, marking a broader realignment in the turbulent Middle East as the historic enemies found common cause against Iran. It is also working to secure a U.S.-brokered peace deal with Saudi Arabia, another Iranian rival.
Formal ties between Israel and the Arab states are expected to make intelligence sharing easier. They are also expected to bolster business and tourism ties. Thousands of Israelis are gearing up to visit the U.A.E. for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah that began Thursday evening, according to travel agents.
Emirati and Bahraini officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the Israeli warning. The U.A.E. was quick to condemn the Iranian scientist’s killing.
Any significant attacks or blowback on Israelis could put these nascent ties in jeopardy, and Gulf Arab states are also vulnerable, as attacks on Gulf oil tanker attacks and drone strikes against oil infrastructure have shown.
Israeli and Emirati companies so far have signed at least 12 memorandums of understanding, according to Mr. Barak, including one signed this week between an Israeli wastewater treatment company and an Emirati conglomerate.
Direct flights between the U.A.E. and Israel started a day before Mr. Fakhrizadeh was killed.
Travel agents say about 25,000 Israelis are expected in Dubai for Hanukkah and the figure will likely increase once the visa-free travel regime is in full force. Visa-free travel for Israelis begins later in December, with those traveling before getting visas under a temporary arrangement. Earlier this week, several hundred Israeli visitors were held up at Dubai’s airport because of a visa mix-up but were later allowed entry.
On Monday, hundreds of Israelis attended a business conference in Dubai to forge new relationships in a fast-growing market for one of Israel’s top exports: technology. Israeli speakers at the event included Yigal Unna, director general of the Israeli government body tasked with cyber defense, and David Leffler, head of Israel’s Ministry of Economy.
“It’s a chance you cannot miss,” said Avi Eyal, the co-founder of Israel and U.K.-based venture firm Entree Capital, whose investments include video app Houseparty and project-management software monday.com. The event was one the first major opportunities to build business ties and relationships in the U.A.E., he said.
Organizers of the technology conference declined to comment on whether they had added security measures to ensure the safety of Israelis, referring questions to Dubai’s police department. It didn’t respond to questions on additional security, but said, “Dubai has always had a reputation for being the safety oasis that opens its arms to the world.”
The conference even held a specific event for Israelis, dubbed the U.A.E.-Israel Future Digital Economy Summit, that aimed to foster ties between the two countries. Among the top speakers was Dov Kotler, chief executive of Bank Hapoalim, one of Israel’s largest lenders and a high-profile sponsor of the event.
Ahead of Monday’s summit, Israelis and Emiratis gathered for dinner and drinks on the rooftop of the Emirates Towers, a luxury hotel and office complex that also houses the office of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler and the prime minister of the U.A.E., according to attendees. Israeli singer Shiri Maimon performed a live set that included Hebrew, Arabic and English versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” they said.
Some would-be travelers are rethinking visits after the warnings, said Avigdor Orgad, a travel agent who runs the Facebook page Dubai for Israelis, which has 5,400 members. But most are pressing ahead with their travel plans, he said.
“Israelis all their lives are under one big risk, if we take all the risks [to heart], we’d never travel around,” Mr. Orgad said. “I’m telling my customers not to stand out, not speak loudly on the street and to be aware.”
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