MIDDLE East – World Expo 2020 Dubai promises to dazzle – and break new diplomatic ground

Israel and the Arab states in the 21st century…

Modern Diplomacy

Modern Diplomacy


World Expo 2020 Dubai promises to dazzle – and break new diplomatic ground

March 11, 2020

ByAmira Khan

The first World Expo to ever be held in the Middle East will take place in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates from October 20, 2020, through April 10, 2021, and will celebrate culture, collaboration, and innovation while featuring a world of flavors, outdoor performances, arts and culture, three thematic districts and innovative landscapes. Guests may be astonished to learn that among the many pavilions, one actually belongs to a little country called Israel. Why, all of a sudden, is Israel being welcomed to take part in an event in an Arab country that, until now, would have excluded it? 

In London, 1851, The first World Expo took place. According to the Bureau International des Expositions, which is responsible for organizing the World Expo, these events “have explicitly been organized around a theme that attempts to improve humankind’s knowledge, takes into account human and social aspirations and highlights scientific, technological, economic and social progress.”

Today, World Expos are large-scale platforms for education and progress that serve as a bridge between governments, companies, international organizations, and citizens. The six-month event in Dubai aims to bring together exhibitors from 192 countries to present their innovative and creative ideas for the future to the millions of expected visitors, with a focus on business, economic health, and global security. 

Israel’s pavilion, designed by Tel Aviv-based Knafo Klimor Architects, will feature an upper area resembling a sand dune and a lower area called the “Path to Innovation”, which will feature numerous technological advancements and contributions by the State of Israel.

The two primary reasons Israel has been invited to the Expo in Dubai are that, first, over the last decade, a natural regional security alliance has developed to push back against Shia Iran and its allies from Arab, mostly Sunni, territory; and second, the Emirates is working to carve itself out as a global peacemaker. For example, the UAE has launched coronavirus rescue missions from Wuhan, China for foreign citizens, created funds to support developing nations (such as giving billions of dollars to Indonesia), and initiating development programs throughout the Arab world. The inclusion of Israel at the Expo may simply be part of the UAE’s global friendly diplomacy program.

According to Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yisrael Katz, “Israel’s participation in the exhibition reflects the rise in Israel’s status—not only internationally, but also among the key state actors in our region,” he said in a statement. “[The] participation gives Israel an extraordinary opportunity to showcase its capabilities and achievements in the field of technology alongside vibrant Israeli culture.”

While Israel does not have official diplomatic relations with the UAE, ties have been warming in recent years, largely over a shared distrust of Iran. Until now, Israelis have not been permitted to freely enter the country, though dual citizens can visit and special entrance permits have been issued for certain businessmen. But now, Israel, seen as a key element in its ability to fight Iran and its proxies, is being welcomed by formerly hostile Arab countries. 

Indeed, the U.S. administration’s peace plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the first part of which was presented in Bahrain, has been welcomed and praised by a number of Arab countries.

Thus, Israel’s inclusion in the Dubai Expo is nothing short of groundbreaking. While it is true that Israel has had covert ties with a number of Arab countries for years, the moving of the relationship into the public arena creates an entirely new set of dynamics between Israel and its neighbors and could potentially have profound positive outcomes for all parties and the region as a whole. Just a few months ago, an Israeli teen delegation participated in the unofficial “Robotics Olympics” in a groundbreaking visit to Dubai, suggesting a growing – and increasingly open – the relationship between Israel and the Emirates.

For Israel, a presence at the Expo demonstrates that Arab nations are finally waking up to reality, silently acknowledging that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the core problem in the region. The UAE probably strategizes that Israel wants to feel accepted as part of the region and, once this is achieved, can then feel comfortable negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It also demonstrates that the Iranian threat is greater than the Palestinian issue and Israel is seen as the only regional nation that can counter the Islamic regime’s threats and dangerous hegemonic aspirations.

The Expo will mark the first time Israelis are permitted to enter the UAE en masse, and there are indications that Israelis may continue to enter after the event ends. If the Arab gesture here is any indication, this may be the start of a real overt relationship between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations. 

So what does this portend for the future? Will Israelis soon freely walk the streets of Riyadh after landing there in an El Al airplane? Perhaps that would be too ambitious to consider right now since full diplomatic relations take time, but the inclusion of an Israeli pavilion at the Expo could be the first major step towards the UAE opening an embassy in Israel and vice-versa. Or perhaps the two countries will launch direct flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai. Certainly within the realm of possibility in the not-so-distant future, is the full normalization of ties between Israel and Arab countries.

This momentous step may very well be a harbinger for a bright future for Arab-Israeli relations and an indication that the region is indeed headed toward a new age of collaboration and joint innovation between Muslims and Jews with the aim to make the world a better place for all humanity.

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