Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, a minister of state in the United Arab Emirates government, said this week in an exclusive interview with Sohrab Amari of The New York Post that “there is no enmity between us and the State of Israel,” a groundbreaking statement that would have been unthinkable in the not-so-distant past.
Nusseibeh made the comments as Christian and Jewish leaders gathered in Abu Dhabi for the first-ever papal visit to the UAE and the Arabian Peninsula.
“The invitation to the Holy Father solidifies the UAE’s status as the most responsible power in the Persian Gulf region,” observed Amari. “And it gives testament to the Emirati leadership’s determination to transcend the bloody, cruel fanaticism that has disfigured the House of Islam and brought ruin to Christians and other minorities unfortunate enough to dwell inside it.”
To back up his assessment, Amari referenced a recent YouGov poll that found that opinions in the emirate “overall are often nearer to that of Western samples than to fellow [Middle Eastern countries] when it comes to general attitudes to world religions.”
While the UAE restricts freedom of worship for non-Islamic faiths in the public sphere, religious minorities can practice their faith in private without government interference, which has given the UAE the reputation of being the most liberal of the Gulf states.
Amari acknowledged that freedom is not absolute in the emirate. However, he asked: “Which is preferable, the joyful materialism of nouveaux riches Emiratis or the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups of the kind?”
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, announced on Monday the construction of a new church and mosque in Abu Dhabi, calling them “beacons to uphold the values of tolerance, moral integrity and human fraternity in the UAE.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar called for people of all faiths to unite to combat terrorism and injustice.
The Israel Project’s senior fellow, Julie Lenarz, observed in an op-ed published on Tuesday in Reaction that “the pope’s visit also comes at a time when the Arab world is increasingly engaging in a rapprochement with the global Jewish community and in particular, Israel.” The emirate, she said, “has been one of the leading exponents of this approach.”