December 20, 2020

Space Exploration, Eco-Tourism, and Fusion Cuisine: Shalem Students Brief UAE Ambassador on Ideas for Cooperation

For United Arab Emirates’ Assistant Foreign Minister Omar Ghobash, the biggest surprise of his recent briefing with Shalem students was not the sheer ingenuity of their ideas for UAE-Israeli cooperation, the fruits of a final assignment for their course on the Gulf States last year. Nor was it even the students’ extensive knowledge of UAE culture, demographics, and economics, all topics they had covered in what is currently the only undergraduate course on the Gulf States to be offered at an Israeli institution of higher education. Rather, it was the moment the first student, Sara Guggenheim ’21, thanked him for his participation—in fluent Arabic.

For students of Shalem’s Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, this was simply par for the course: The department’s emphasis on language acquisition has made it the top choice of an increasing number of applicants, including those from elite IDF intelligence units, and grants students the confidence to converse with Arabic speakers in Israel and throughout the region.

Nonetheless, few students expect to put their Arabic to use on a senior Emirati diplomat.

Eliav Benjamin, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Bureau and a key member of the group responsible for setting up the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi.

“When I asked students in my course to write a hypothetical memorandum to the Israeli or Emirati foreign ministry on opportunities for cooperation between the two countries, I never imagined that just a few weeks after the papers were in, the Abraham Accords would be signed,” explains former president of the American Foreign Service Association and current Shalem lecturer Robert Silverman, who organized the virtual briefing of Ghobash and Eliav Benjamin, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Bureau and a key member of the group responsible for setting up the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi. By way of explaining his participation, Benjamin said, “I knew we had to seize this opportunity, not just to put meat on the bones of the Abraham Accords through meaningful interactions between the people of both countries, but also to show that some of the most innovative and effective ideas for cooperation can come from individuals trained to think in cross-disciplinary, big-picture ways. Individuals,” Benjamin concludes, “like the students at Shalem.”

Among the participants in the hour-long briefing were four of the nine students who had submitted memoranda, all of whom, Silverman insists, “blew me away with their creativity,” as well as Odelia Yatzkan, Shalem’s director of innovation, and Dr. Martin Kramer, chair of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department. Explaining that he had read an article in which Ghobash himself wrote that after the initial excitement of the accords wore off, much hard work would remain, Dr. Kramer said, “These students have thought about ways to do that work. Their ideas are what the future of peace between our countries can look like.”

Guggenheim opened the briefing with a description of her proposal for a joint Israel-UAE moon-exploration program in the framework of NASA’s Artemis, which aims to create sustainable lunar exploration by the end of the decade. Citing Israel’s experience with its small lunar lander Beresheet and the UAE’s moon lander Rashid, expected to launch in 2024, Guggenheim explained that a collaborative space program could also yield numerous benefits back on Earth. “The cooperation between our two countries’ scientific communities for space exploration would invariably lead to joint STEM ventures for a range of purposes,” said Guggenheim. She also argued that the fact that women make up nearly 40 percent of the UAE’s space-exploration science team and 80 percent of its satellite team could only redound positively to the Jewish state. “We in Israel are always looking for more ways to encourage women to enter STEM fields. The UAE is doing something right in this area, and we should learn those lessons.”

Next to present was Yuval Adler ’21, who conceded jokingly that his idea aimed almost as high as the moon with a proposal for a trilateral, Israel-UAE-Saudi Arabia eco-tourism project in the Gulf of Aqaba. Using as a reference Project Neom, the planned cross-border tourist destination in northwestern Saudi Arabia that will be powered by renewable energy sources, Adler proposed a program for marine and desert-oriented eco-tourism. Featuring scuba-diving, sailing, trekking, jeeping, and traditional accommodations, the project would capitalize on the as-yet undiscovered landscape and unique coral reefs of its Saudi Location, as well as UAE, Saudi, and Israeli sustainable-energy technologies and Israeli marine-conservation activity. “When Saudi Arabi is ready to sign an accord with Israel, the idea will be waiting,” Adler said with a smile.

Shalem senior Yael Ben Shimon proposed a joint, Israel-UAE qualifying industrial zone to be based in the UAE, whose goods would be produced for export to America tax-free. Modeled after the successful QIZs in Egypt and Jordan—established to take advantage of the free-trade agreements between Israel and the United States—the UAE and Bahrain manufacturing operations, she explained, would produce hi-tech goods that contain both a minimum portion of Israeli input and of UAE added value to the finished product. Significantly, the QIZ would also create connections between both countries’ hi-tech and business sectors and potentially fuel collaborations between their technology industries.

Finally, Shalem graduate Avi Levi-Stevenson ’20 leveraged his love of the culinary arts into a proposal for an Israeli-UAE fusion food stand at the 2021 World Expo in Dubai. Explaining that he first became interested in Gulf cuisine during the COVID-19 lockdown, when he began to follow a popular Bahraini chef on Instagram, Avi realized that both countries’ cuisines were influenced not only by deep-rooted cultural traditions, but also by the many immigrant cultures that now call both places home. Noting that even the Israeli celebrity chef Meir Adoni has plans to open several restaurants in Dubai, Avi encouraged Ghobash and Benjamin to invest in precisely these “back-door” means of creating familiarity between the countries and their peoples.

Ghobash, inspired to share a memory from his childhood about his own quest to find an Emirati “national food,” told Avi he needed little in the way of convincing; the joint food-stand idea had his full support.

Thanking the students for their initiative, Ghobash gave students the kind of positive feedback of which they could only dream: “I did not think, in my lifetime, that there would ever be peace with Israel. But now that we have it, listening to you students,” he concluded, “I wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. I certainly wish we had.”

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