Post-normalisation Gulf Arab tourism to Israel not materialising
Israel struck an agreement with the UAE to normalise relations in 2020. Officials insisted Israel's new ties with the UAE, and soon after with Bahrain, would go beyond governments and become society-wide pacts, stoking mass tourism and friendly exchanges between people long at odds.
But over two years since the highly controversial normalisation deals, the expected flood of Gulf Arab tourists to Israel has been little more than a trickle.
Although more than half a million Israelis have flocked to oil-rich Abu Dhabi and skyscraper-studded Dubai, just 1,600 Emirati citizens have 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 longstanding image problem in the Arab world and reveals the limits of the Abraham Accords, the normalisation agreements signed between Israel and four Arab countries in 2020, experts say.
There is strong opposition in Palestine and across the Arab world to normalisation with Israel, which has illegally occupied Palestinian territory for decades.
Even as bilateral trade between Israel and the UAE has exploded from $11.2 million in 2019 to $1.2 billion last year, any support for the agreements in the UAE and Bahrain has 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 percent from 47 percent in the last two years.
In Bahrain, just 20 percent of the population supports the deal, down from 45 percent in 2020.
In that time, Israel carried out a deadly 11-day bombing campaign against the besieged Gaza Strip and significantly killing hundreds of civilians and stepped up its raids and killings of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
At least 231 Palestinian were killed by Israel in 2022 with three killed in the first three days of this year, including a 15-year-old boy.
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 normalise relations 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 occupied city has turned off Emiratis and Bahrainis, some of whom have faced backlash from Palestinians who see normalisation as a betrayal of their national cause.
The Palestinian struggle for liberation from Israel enjoys broad support across the Arab world.
The fear of anti-Arab racism in Israel can also 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 have 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, and is now in charge of a far-right coalition government, 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 US-brokered normalisation 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.
Yet experts fear his new government – the most ultranationalist and religiously conservative in Israel's history – could further deter Gulf Arab tourists and even jeopardise the agreements.
His government has vowed to expand West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and pledged to annex the entire territory, a step that was put on hold as a condition of the initial agreement with the UAE.
So far, Gulf Arab governments have offered no reason for concern.
The Emirati ambassador was photographed warmly embracing Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of the coalition's most radical members, at a national day celebration last month.
And over the weekend, the UAE's leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, called Netanyahu to congratulate him and invite him to visit.
It's a different story among those who are not in the officialdom.
"I hope that Netanyahu and those with him will not set foot on the land of the Emirates," Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati political scientist, wrote on Twitter.
"I think it is appropriate to freeze the Abraham Accords temporarily."
Israeli journalists were also snubbed by fans from the Arab world and beyond during the recent football World Cup in Qatar.