The United Arab Emirates marked its 50th anniversary of statehood with grand celebrations across the country today, Dec. 2.
Having received its independence from Britain in December 1971, the young nation has shot up quickly to become a powerhouse in the Gulf. Its national success was spurred on even more exponentially when in August 2020, the UAE announced it would normalize ties with Israel.
It was a fascinating encounter and – unbeknownst to us at the time – the events were a shadow of what was to come:
One of the youngest of the Gulf States, the UAE received its independence from Britain in December 1971. Once a collection of sleepy fishing villages ruled by seven tribal leaders, it became a unified country through the visionary efforts and sheer grit of its founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
The discovery of oil in the 1950s was a boon, but the sheikh wanted more—and he soon put the Emirates on a path to flourishing beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. By the end of 2001, after thirty years under the sheikh’s leadership, the UAE’s economy was thirty-six times larger than it had been in 1971.
In 2001, population of the UAE was 3.3 million, but 87 percent were not native Emiratis. Most were foreign workers hired to develop and run the oil industry, build cities and some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers from scratch, and operate the many hotels, apartment complexes, malls, and restaurants that were popping up all over.
Along with the unique economy and demographics of the seven emirates, the sheikh capitalized on traditional values of hospitality and openness to other cultures, nationalities, and even religions to make the UAE a special place in the Gulf region.
Though Sheikh Zayed was born and raised a Muslim, he was not a radical. Unlike his Saudi neighbors, he had no interest in building a kingdom that isolated itself from the rest of the world—nor could he afford to. Both to survive and to thrive, Sheikh Zayed believed the UAE had to become known as a place of openness, tolerance, and inclusion.
And that is exactly what we found when we arrived.
Our group landed in Abu Dhabi on the evening of October 26, 2018.
Over the next four days, we met with an intriguing group of senior government officials, clergymen, and leaders in the war against violent extremism.
We were also briefed by senior officials at the Sawab Center, the joint U.S.-UAE digital war room and rapid-response center, established in 2015 to counter the messaging of radicals on broadcast, print, and social media in real time. And we toured the extraordinary Louvre Abu Dhabi with the museum’s senior executives.
We learned a great deal from all these meetings. But most fascinating to us was our conversation with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
MEETING THE CROWN PRINCE
Our meeting at the royal palace with MBZ began at 1 p.m. on October 29. It was scheduled to last thirty minutes, but we talked for more than two hours.
The crown prince is a tall, lanky man with kind brown eyes, a warm smile, and a thin beard and mustache. He greeted us wearing a crisp white thawb— the traditional cotton robe worn by most Emirati men—black sandals, and a white headdress wrapped with a thick black cord. We expected the meeting to be held in a large, formal hall, but instead he asked us to join him in a small parlor.
MBZ sat in a gilded chair, not unlike the one (Egyptian) President (Abdel Fattah el-) Sisi had. I was seated directly to his left, and the others were seated up close as well, on thick, maroon upholstered couches. No other leader we had met with had created so intimate a setting or sat so close to us.
Joining us were several members of the crown prince’s inner circle, including Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Hedayah Center, who had briefed us on the UAE’s impressive efforts to wage an ideological and theological war against the extremists; Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority; and Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, the undersecretary of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi.
We were served cups of steaming hot coffee and tea, and the crown prince took our questions—dozens of them—covering his views on everything from the Iranian regime and the Iran nuclear deal to the implications of the Arab Spring and the threat of radical Islamism to the future of religious freedom and pluralism not only in the UAE but throughout the Arab Muslim world. He held court in a classic Gulf Arab tradition known as a majlis, in which an emir converses with his subjects or guests.
The ground rules were such that I am not at liberty to share with you the details of our conversation, more like our conversation with King Abdullah in Jordan and our talks with President Sisi in Egypt. However, the palace released a photograph to the media, along with a short video of our meeting. It also released a statement, explaining to the press that the crown prince had “received a U.S. evangelical Christian delegation led by Joel Rosenberg,” and emphasizing the crown prince’s determination to promote “peaceful coexistence” between religions and to “uproot the scourge of terrorism, extremism, fanaticism, and hatred.”
Since our return from the UAE in 2018, I have been careful not to reveal the most important part of that extraordinary meeting. But now it can be told.
Because we were meeting with the leader of an Arab country that did not yet have a peace agreement with Israel, we decided as a group ahead of time that I should make the following three points in my remarks.
First, we wanted the crown prince to know that because evangelical Christians study and believe the teachings of the entire Bible— both Old and New Testaments—we love Israel and the Jewish people and are committed to their security and prosperity. This is not a political position, I explained, but a theological one. It is, therefore, a deeply held conviction and not one from which we can be swayed.
Second, we are commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors. This means that along with our love for the people of Israel, we also love the Palestinian people and all Arab and Muslim people. We wanted to make it clear that just because we love Israel does not mean we hate those who oppose her. God loves both sides, I explained, and we are commanded to do the same.
Third, I noted that, in Psalm 122:6, we are commanded to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Millions of Christians around the world, and certainly in America, take that verse literally and seriously. “And as we pray daily for peace,” I said, “we are looking to see who will be the next Arab leader to step forward and make peace with Israel, even if the Palestinian leadership is not yet ready.”
I explained that we had not come with a detailed peace plan in mind.
We were not trying to lobby him to embrace a certain plan. We just wanted him to know our hearts, our desire for peace, and our biblical convictions and to take his measure on the topic.
To our astonishment, the crown prince leaned forward and said, “Joel, I am ready to make peace with Israel.”