Israel and the UAE: My first phone call to Dubai

I hit the cellphone buttons and call Dubai.There’s a flashback to my student days at the Hebrew University when I needed a reservation at the Central Post Office on Jaffa Road to call home to my family in Connecticut, sitting in a booth, waiting for an operator to connect us. We used blue aerograms for most communication.Now I’m reaching out to the United Arab Emirates. It’s free. I’m using WhatsApp. Thank you, Jan Koum, former Russian Jew for inventing this system of international dialing and messaging.It’s not the distance, of course, that’s novel. Just last week I interviewed the founder of a Latin Klezmer Band called Kef 13,000 kilometers away in Argentina. Dubai is only 2,000 kilometers away, a short flight over Saudi Arabia. (!) I have friends who have visited the UAE for real estate investments and even shopping, using their foreign passports. Still, calling to the former Trucial Sheikhdoms as an Israeli from Jerusalem is thrilling. It makes me feel that the phantom New Middle East is at last a possibility.
At the other end of the cellular line is a surgeon/entrepreneur whose name I cannot yet reveal. I’ve been introduced to him because of a recent column I’ve written in these pages about Killer Masks. In that column I suggested that reluctant mask-wearers might be more conscientious about wearing face masks properly and not on their chins if they realized that several Israel-invented masks reputedly neutralize the lethal viruses propelled toward our mouths and noses. Impressed with the science, Dr. Dubai, let’s call him, closed a deal with the blue-and-white company Sonovia Tech for black and white masks, plus some novelty ones with flags of the UAE and Israel. They call those the Salamasks.I can’t reveal my contact’s name because he’s practicing caution. “There are some who oppose our new connections between our countries,” he says. Nonetheless, he sounds exuberant and sees a great future in our new ties.The United Arab Emirates consists of seven self-governed emirates that formed a federation in 1972. Abu Dhabi is the largest, and Dubai – both the name of the Emirate and the city is the second largest but most populous. Only 20% of the residents are native-born Emiratis.We speak in English, first discussing coronavirus in our countries. The United Arab Emirates has been issuing stiff fines for anyone who dares not wear a mask, and even greater penalties for anyone caught holding pirate parties out in the desert. The number of new infections is reportedly in the hundreds, although the UAE has a million more people than we do, and we have thousands of daily reported cases. In the Emirates, there’s a trend toward reusable masks, Dr. Dubai says. Hence, he’s delighted to cooperate with the Ramat Gan-based company with its zinc oxide treated cloth.SOON WE’RE schmoozing like old friends. Bizarrely, my contact’s father, also a physician, worked at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut with my aunt Lucile, a nurse. I wonder if he remembers the fresh-baked, signature mandelbrot she would bring to the staff room every morning. Like most residents of the UAE, he’s not a native Emirati. In fact, he was born – where else? – in Jerusalem. His family moved to the US decades ago, and he studied at one of the US’s most prestigious universities, for undergraduate and medical degrees. He’s been to Israel many times to visit relatives. We even share a favorite restaurant – Piccolino in downtown Jerusalem and we plan to meet there and to visit Hadassah Hospital on his next trip.We talk about Israeli tourists. He’s read Jerusalem Post travel expert Mark Feldman’s guide to travel to Dubai. Knowing the free-flowing reputation of Israeli tourists, he suggests that I emphasize to potential Israeli tourists that rules are more than suggestions in the UAE, and that they should plan to behave carefully in a country with strict enforcement of law if they don’t want to wind up in jail. An example of a few regulations? No ripped jeans or miniskirts. No eating in public during Ramadan. No kissing in public. No alcohol in the city of Sharjah.Dr. Dubai is both a do-gooder – eager to see his country develop – as well as a businessman. He’s already investigated Israeli technology, particularly in food and water, to bring home to the Emirates. There has been a problem until now, he says. Many of the plans progress with enthusiasm on both sides until the final step when everyone has to sign. “Then the fear factor hits and potential partners become reluctant to close the deal,” he says. “That’s what is changing now.”If anyone had asked him last year, he would have predicted that a treaty would be coming soon, with UAE President Khalifa bin-Zayed al-Nahyan declaring 2019 to be the “The Year of Tolerance. It’s not fully a peace treaty, he admits, but it’s close. He likes to think of the current period, as “the gold rush of normalization.”His contact with Sonovia began in March. He saw a YouTube clip about the anti-viral properties of the masks, and wound up speaking, also by WhatsApp, with a Sonovia rep named Moshe who was in San Paolo, Brazil. Next, there was a contact in Canada. Finally, he was talking directly to Israel, learning about the ultrasonic-based wet-processing methodology developed at Bar-Ilan University that was first developed for hospital-based bacterial, fungal and viral infections. In the past year, Sonovia’s mask market has boomed. The Israeli Cycling Team wore them recently biking in the Tour de France.Says Dr. Jason Migal, Sonovia’s R&D strategist, “We were inspired by the actualization of peace with UAE in our times, which indeed follows months of collaboration between the two nations in devising anti-COVID solutions. We therefore decided to pay homage to this great union to rise out of the crisis by designing our protective Salamask. With regards to this fresh, collective mindset, it is very reassuring that we find Emirati citizens interested in Sonovia’s anti-viral masks and moreover to discover that businessmen and doctors in UAE not only advocate our products for public safety, but will truly go above and beyond further publicizing our technology there.”Adds the doctor in Dubai: “Isn’t it wonderful that one of the first deals to be closed is for masks? Just think how the tragic pandemic has equalized us and brought us together. And now, only good can come from it.” The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.

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