Life & Culture

Dubai's new tribe: what's it like being Jewish in the United Arab Emirates?

Antisemitism was once the norm in the UAE, but now things have changed. Or have they? Zoe Strimpel went to find out


Camel at the urban background of Dubai.

Until very recently Jews kept their heads down in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Fifteen years ago, I flew to Abu Dhabi to see a friend who had just relocated there for work. I made sure to bring my US passport, Israeli stamp-free.

I had mixed feelings about the trip: boiling sun in March sounded good and I was keen to see the garish wealth and bottomless brunches of lore. But like most Arab countries, the UAE didn’t recognise Israel and had a tradition of enshrining antisemitism — a scheme in which the Western institutions based out there were apparently happily complicit. In deference to local laws, British universities banned all books by Jews, and those that mentioned Jews in their bibliographies; the British Council openly admitted to the banning of Jewish work.

Flash forward to 2019, and a curious sea change not just in policy but apparently in sentiment towards Jews too. The UAE’s “ministry of tolerance” suddenly decreed a new era of multifaith harmony, in which Jews — since 1971, the year of the UAE’s founding, an unofficially tolerated community –— would be openly embraced. This was great but could have simply promoted lip service to toleration, especially for economic or political gain, not the full-throated embrace that followed the 2019 announcement.

And then, in 2020, came the most surprising development of all: the signing of the Abraham Accords, facilitated by Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, which saw relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain “normalised” and made “friendly”. Etihad began direct flights between Israel and Abu Dhabi (Emirates is set to start flying to Tel Aviv in June); Emirati investment in Israeli expertise and products, such as in water purification technology, was immediate, helped along by such outfits as the UAE Israel Business Council. Emirati investors bought shares in Hapoel Jerusalem and low-cost airline Israir. In 2020 and 2021, there was the massive menorah celebrating Chanukah in front of the Burj Al-Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The launch of Abu Dhabi’s Abrahamic Family House will see the opening of the Moses Ben Maimon synagogue, reported to be the world’s most opulent.

It was at this point that I decided to go out and take the temperature of the Jewish community myself. Had it really become the confident, relaxed and growing mini-minority Twitter was suggesting? Or was it part of a “faithwashing” process – to make the UAE, with its dubious human rights record, seem better than it is? I had another reason for going. As the epicentre of famed Emirati excess as well as the influencer economy (I happen to follow the perambulations of Love Island stars), Dubai also seemed like somewhere worth going in its own right, if only once to observe its grandiose touristic delights and oil-fuelled luxuries alongside the textures of the burgeoning Jewish community. The much-stereotyped allure is now attracting Israelis by the planeful too; I overhead quite a bit of Hebrew being spoken within and outside the Jewish Community house.

I landed in Dubai during Purim. I was due at a Purim party that night, organised by the Jewish Community of Dubai, which hosts weekly events and celebrations plus a Shabbat dinner for locals and tourists.

But first, I checked into Dubai’s most expensive hotel, the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. My split-level suite was enormous, airy and echoing, with floor-to-ceiling windows over the sea and city, a vast mirror over the bed, and a cavernous bathroom with a jacuzzi tub fillable by an on-demand butler. It was Dubai-extra. After my nap I ambled to Sal for lunch, a pretty terrace with an Ibiza vibe fronting the longest infinity pool I’ve ever seen, spilling into the electric blue sea. I then had a superb massage courtesy of Vikram, a Kashmiri massage therapist with magic hands.

Any Jew who visits Dubai will negotiate the outrageous, playful artificiality of the skyrise-lined strip and its hubristic hotels, even if just on their way to 31st street, the site of the spacious Jewish community house. After a costly 25-minute drive in a Mercedes helmed by an Indian man, I found myself, at dusk, on a quiet street bursting with bright pink flowers, and completely different in feel from everywhere else I would see in Dubai. I saw a doorway thronged with balloons and a security guard. This was clearly not the sad, three-person affair I feared it might be.

I entered a large, smart garden already full of hundreds of people, grownups and children, many dressed for Purim in humorous outfits, including, in one case, a man in full Emirati gear. There were huge platters of kosher hot dogs and noodles and meat and bread and plates full of home-made hamantaschen. Later, a lamb schwarma began to rotate next to a vast tray of pita breads. I immediately met long-term Dubai resident, Bruce, a money manager originally from the US, who lost no time in offering me a dram of the first of several single malt y bottles I would see him with; a connoisseur, he told me he had over 2,000 open bottles at home.

Bruce, who had lived in the Emirate for over a decade, was the first of many I spoke to who swore blind that Dubai had always been a welcoming place for Jews and that he had never encountered even the faintest whiff of antisemitism.

I soon found Adaya, a young Israeli woman who had recently relocated with her boyfriend and was now working as the community’s liaison while finding her feet. She and her boyfriend, who worked in marketing for Adidas, had got tired of Israel’s grindingly high taxes and Tel Aviv rental prices. They were ready for some tax-free fun in the sun, an identical refrain to that of the glamorous blonde Russian-born Olga and her husband, whom I would meet at Shabbat the next night; they had also moved to Dubai from Tel Aviv to run a complex-sounding financial business.

There are several strands to the UAE’s community: the Jewish Council, the Jewish Community Center and Chabad. The chief rabbi is Yehuda Sarna, based in New York; Ross Kriel is the South African-born president of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, and Levi Duchman is the rabbi of the JCC and Chief Rabbi of Chabad; he is the UAE’s only resident rabbi. Duchman, formerly of New York, was the rabbi presiding over the hundreds of revellers I saw. In the end, Duchman was so busy and with such an unpredictable schedule that despite chasing him for weeks, by email, through representatives, and then finally in person, I was unable to finally catch him. He was supposed to be at the Purim party, but at the last minute found he would need to stay all night in Abu Dhabi, where the community was getting on its feet.

I did meet his little brother Mendel, a handsome 25-year-old rabbi running the shop when Levi is away, who told me that the UAE is “the best place for Jews to live in the world”. By contrast, he said that while in New York, wearing religious clothing, he constantly felt threatened and encountered regular street antisemitism. I met his wife, Mucha, a French-born banker with enormous blue eyes, and the Duchman sister, Chevi, the linchpin of the House. A noisy mother with a lustrous wig of brown hair and a cute kid dressed as a policeman, she oversees the running of the Chabad-JCC house, complete with a suite of Filipino cooks and security. It was Chevi who had made the hamantaschen for Purim.

With a whiskey in one hand and a hot dog in the other, I was introduced to Solly Wolf, the head of the JCC. He is a charming, elderly gentleman with a persistent Hebrew accent who has lived in the Emirates for 20 years, working in textiles and as a couturier. He told me that because he dressed their wives he had long known the UAE’s seven Sheiks – “I’m sitting in the palaces with them”. He said that while he’d never encountered antisemitism throughout his two decades in Dubai, he also never let on that he was Israeli. On hearing this I suspected the picture of rosy acceptance painted by Bruce and others was a little over-the-top. But then I met several men who said they went out to cafes in Dubai wearing their kippot only ever attracting admiring curiosity.

The community consists of 400-odd families living permanently in the UAE now sending their children to nursery and even an after-school Talmud Torah programme, plus hundreds more passing through on business or pleasure. Other locals I met on Purim included Esther Faustino, the Italian head of merchandising in the Middle East for Max Mara who had worked in Milan before moving to Dubai, and Avital Schneller, the only Jewish employee of the Abu Dhabi tourism board.

Red-cheeked and merry after an evening of friendly conviviality, I dove back into the other Dubai, the one of the Burj al-Arab and its flagship Italian restaurant, L’Olivo, notable for the vast aquarium that runs around it. The next day I was taken to the brand-new Museum of the Future, more impressive for its exorbitantly spacious design than its somewhat half-baked futurism, and then to the artists’ colony Al Serkal, a cluster of elegant coffee shops, cafes, boutiques and even a cinema showing films on normally censored themes such as same-sex romance.

A quick dip back at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and I was ready to go back to 31st Street for Shabbat dinner. I arrived at dusk, just before Shabbat came in. It was quiet, almost deserted this time, and the door was locked: after buzzing, a guard let me in. A table outside was set for 35 and by the end of the evening it was full, with about half of guests sleeping over in one of many rooms on-site. I wandered into the house and encountered a fascinating trickle of guests. There was the young woman from Ukraine, a 21-year-old model dating an Israeli who had lived in Kiev. She seemed grimly determined to wait the war out and return home when it was safe. There were the just-married Israeli pair who had relocated for business.

There was Jasmin, a glamorous French woman who ran Dolce Vita, a “conciergerie” for Jews in Dubai organising kosher outings and events. Kosher food is surprisingly accessible in the Emirates: there are three kosher eateries in Dubai as well as Kosher Arabia, which provides kosher catering to airlines — I met a South African man who worked for Kosher Arabia, and he wore dreadlocks and linens, further exploding my existing image of Dubai expats.

The men davened before dinner; I asked if there was a shul on site. There isn’t, because at the moment synagogues can only be granted a license in hotels — which nobody much wants — and residential permits for shuls were recently revoked. This sounded like a wrinkle in the great embrace, but I was assured they were just figuring things out. Still, one person put in that “everything was about money”, referring to the permits.

Over dinner I met the dozens in town for the Nas Daly conference on digital content; this crop included a couple of young men from Yeshiva University in New York, one of whom serenaded the Shabbat table with improvised R&B lyrics, and Nataniel Gouracki, a handsome Frenchman living in Jaffa and the founder of That’s Y, an activist news agency. It was a Shabbat evening of more than average convivial familiarity, and I felt thoroughly at home.

The next day was my last in the Emirate: I went on a whistlestop tour of the small old town and aromatic, orderly spice market, and then off into the desert for sunset with a group called Heritage Safaris. As I rode a camel called Jamal, I reflected on how Dubai’s storied but fundamentally alien culture, with all its luxuries, had become the surprising setting for what had seemed one of the happiest and healthiest Jewish communities I had ever encountered. I hankered to return — to the house at 31st street.

Zoe Strimpel stayed in the Burj Al-Arab (from £940a night) and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel (from £219 a night) and her flights on Emirates were courtesy of the Dubai Tourist Board, as were her trips to the Museum of the Future, guided tour of Al-Serkal, tour of the old town and Heritage Safari Experience. Emirates flies multiple times a day, from £450 return.

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