How did you get involved with the Gulf?
When the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two great Mosques, launched his interfaith initiative in 2008, the then Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, reached out to invite me to the first interfaith gathering convened by King Abdullah and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Madrid, Spain in July 2008.
They invited me in recognition of the groundbreaking work I had been doing in Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States. Subsequently, King Abdullah introduced me to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain and my journey in the Gulf began. As the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding grew over the years to be the global address for Muslim-Jewish relations and as these countries focused more efforts on inter-religious dialogue, they invited me to their kingdoms as well as to play various roles for their interfaith centers. I was recently named by King Hamad of Bahrain and the Royal Court as a special advisor to the King. Part of that role is to advise The King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence which is Bahrain’s interfaith center. I still sit on the board of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue and am involved with both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates’ Interfaith centers and initiatives.
As a result of these deep relationships, I led the first Jewish congregational mission to a Gulf country when I brought members of the Hampton Synagogue to Bahrain in 2018. I’ve also been fortunate on several occasions to keynote the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID). One of the things I am most proud of is that I maintain strong relationships with the Gulf countries on both side of the boycott which is very unique.
Why do you believe that we’re seeing a warming between Israel and the Gulf? Why now?
The Gulf states are facing two existentialist challenges – the first is the diminishing demand for oil and therefore their need to diversify their economies and the second is the security threat they face from Iran. The Gulf nations know that Israel can help them diversify their economies, and with the threat they face from Iran.
I’ve heard from a couple of Gulf leaders who have said to me, “Rabbi, with our wealth and resources and Israel’s brain trust and technology, we could build the most powerful region in the world today.” This is an acknowledgement that if Israel and the Gulf come together they can help the Gulf with the two existentialist threats they face. There are two other factors though – the Gulf wants to get close to the Trump administration and knows that a conduit to that success is through Israel and secondly, there is a genuine interest on behalf of these leaders to reach out to the global Jewish community.
Today, there is a recognition that if you want to engage in dialogue with the Jewish community; if you want to engage in an interreligious dialogue between Islam and Judaism, that you also need to acknowledge that Israel is very much at the core of the Jewish religion. This is a paradigm shift because a decade ago, I would hear comments like, “You know, Rabbi, we have nothing against Jews, it’s the Zionists.” I no longer hear that and that’s a sign that we’ve made great headway. Meaning, they understand that Israel is not a 70-year-old political reality for the Jewish People. Israel is at the very core of Judaism. At a recent interfaith conference, I shared with Muslim leaders that asking to break out Israel from Judaism is like my asking Halal and Sharia to be broken out of Islam.
What is the motivation on the Gulf side to have relations with Israel?
The Gulf leaders are very optimistic about the opportunities that will present themselves once they have diplomatic relations with the Israelis. There are four main reasons I hear from them about their desire to move this process forward. First and foremost are the economic benefits. Second is Iran – both Israel and the Gulf are facing the common threat of Iran. The third reason would be getting closer to the Trump Administration – the Gulf realizes that by coming closer to Israel, their political reality would be in concert with the objectives of the Trump administration. The fourth reason is that there is a genuine interest from the Gulf leaders in bringing together Muslims and Jews and they know that the way to get close to Jews is by having diplomatic relations with Israel.
What do you hear from the Gulf leaders in regard to their thoughts on potential ties with Israel?
There is overriding interest and a genuine desire to see the establishment of relations between them and Israel. They see diplomatic relations as a win-win for both sides, they benefit from having access to Israel’s technology and Israel would have access to their economic resources.
Recently, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman (the brother of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman) told me that the kingdom knows that Israel is an integral part of their achieving their 2030 economic plan. That is a major statement and really shows the warming of the ties.
Interestingly, one of the reasons they want to establish diplomatic relations with Israel is that they want more Jews and Israelis to do business in the Gulf and to visit for pleasure. They recognize that the only way for that to happen is for them to have open relations with Israel. In just the last few months, I’ve been asked by the leaders of Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to help build Jewish life in the Gulf. As the Special Advisor to King Hamad of Bahrain, he has tasked me with helping to preserve and grow his indigenous Jewish community. In Qatar, I am working with Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary General of the 2022 World Cup, to provide special services for Jews who will be in Doha for the games. We have shared publicly that we will have Kosher food available and we are working on some other ideas and initiatives as well. In the United Arab Emirates, I am working with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan who is the Minister of Tolerance on some initiatives for their Jewish community who recently went public.
We are living in remarkable times! To hear the excitement and passion from these leaders about the opportunity to help build Jewish life in the Gulf is nothing short of amazing.
The rest of this editorial will be published at a later time