Where are the Gulf Arab tourists? Israel’s hopes fall short
JERUSALEM — When Israel struck an agreement with the United Arab Emirates to open diplomatic ties in 2020, it brought an electrifying sense of achievement to a country long ostracized in the Middle East.
Officials insisted that Israel’s new ties with the UAE, and soon after with Bahrain, would go beyond governments and become societywide pacts, stoking mass tourism and friendly exchanges between people long at odds.
But over two years since the breakthrough accords, the expected flood of Gulf Arab tourists to Israel has been little more than a trickle. Although more than half a million Israelis flocked to oil-rich Abu Dhabi and skyscraper-studded Dubai, just 1,600 Emirati citizens visited Israel since it lifted coronavirus travel restrictions last year, the Israeli Tourism Ministry told The Associated Press.
The ministry does not know how many Bahrainis have visited Israel because, it said, “the numbers are too small.”
“It’s still a very weird and sensitive situation,” said Morsi Hija, head of the forum for Arabic-speaking tour guides in Israel. “The Emiratis feel like they’ve done something wrong in coming here.”
The lack of Emirati and Bahraini tourists reflects Israel’s long-standing image problem in the Arab world and reveals the limits of the Abraham Accords, experts say.
Even as bilateral trade between Israel and the UAE exploded from $11.2 million in 2019 to $1.2 billion last year, the popularity of the agreements in the UAE and Bahrain plummeted since the deals were signed, according to a survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an American think tank.
In the UAE, support fell to 25% from 47% in the last two years. In Bahrain, just 20% of the population supports the deal, down from 45% in 2020. In that time, Israel and Gaza militants fought a devastating war and violence in the occupied West Bank surged to its highest levels in years.
Israeli officials say Gulf Arab tourism to Israel is a missing piece that would move the agreements beyond security and diplomatic ties. Tourist visits from Egypt and Jordan, the first two countries to reach peace with Israel, also are virtually nonexistent.
“We need to encourage (Emiratis) to come for the first time. It’s an important mission,” Amir Hayek, Israeli ambassador to the UAE, told the AP. “We need to promote tourism so people will know each other and understand each other.”
Israeli tourism officials flew to the UAE last month in a marketing push to spread the word that Israel is a safe and attractive destination. The ministry said it’s now pitching Tel Aviv — Israel’s commercial and entertainment hub — as a big draw for Emiratis.
Tour agents say that so far, betting on Jerusalem has backfired. The turmoil of the contested city has turned off Emiratis and Bahrainis, some of whom faced backlash from Palestinians who see normalization as a betrayal of their cause. The Palestinian struggle for independence from Israel enjoys broad support across the Arab world.
“There’s still a lot of hesitation coming from the Arab world,” said Dan Feferman, director of Sharaka, a group that promotes people-to-people exchanges between Israel and the Arab world. “They expect (Israel) to be a conflict zone, they expect to be discriminated against.” After leading two trips of Bahrainis and Emiratis to Israel, Sharaka struggled to find more Gulf Arab citizens interested in visiting, he said.
When a group of Emirati and Bahraini social media influencers in 2020 visited the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site in Islam, they were spat on and pelted with shoes in Jerusalem’s Old City, said Hija, their tour guide.
When another group of Emirati officials visited the flashpoint site accompanied by Israeli police, they drew the ire of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, who issued a religious edict against Emiratis visiting the mosque under Israeli supervision.
Most Emiratis and Bahrainis who have visited Israel say they forgo their national dress and headscarves in order not to attract attention.
Palestinian rage against Emiratis is not confined to the sacred esplanade. Emirati citizens visiting and studying in Israel say they face frequent death threats and online attacks.
The fear of anti-Arab racism in Israel also can drive Gulf Arabs away. Israeli police mistakenly arrested two Emirati tourists in Tel Aviv last summer while hunting for a criminal who carried out a drive-by shooting. Some Emiratis complained on social media about drawing unwanted scrutiny from security officials at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
“If you bring them here and don’t treat them in a sensitive way, they’ll never come back and tell all their friends to stay away,” Hija said.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned for a sixth term as prime minister last week, has pledged to strengthen agreements with Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Sudan. Formal ties with Sudan remain elusive in the wake of a military coup and in the absence of a parliament to ratify its U.S.-brokered normalization deal with Israel.
As a chief architect of the accords, Netanyahu also hopes to expand the circle of countries and reach a similar deal with Saudi Arabia.