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Exclusive: Meet Dan Shaham, the Israeli diplomat who strived for UAE-Israel peace

Michal Michelle Divon/Dubai
Filed on November 25, 2020

We grew up knowing that there is going to be somebody on the other side, who reaches out their hand and says, come let's do it together, says Israel's acting representative to the UAE.

We grew up knowing that there is going to be somebody on the other side, who reaches out their hand and says, come let's do it together, says Israel's acting representative to the UAE.

Before the Abraham Accords shook the entire Middle East, there was a small Israeli mission to the UAE comprised of one person – Israeli diplomat Dan Shaham.

For over one year and a half, Shaham sat in the capital Abu Dhabi where he served as the head of the mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), imagining everything he would be able to do if relations between Israel and the UAE were normalised. He had no timeline as to when normalisation would materialise, and whether it would be under his watch.

“You’re there as an Israeli diplomat, you’re so eager to do all of the things that you’ve been trained to do. For 30 years you’ve been looking forward to this moment, and then the first year you are just standing and waiting and looking at all these amazing things that you could have done,” says Shaham.

Before the normalisation of ties, Israel’s modest presence in the UAE (under IRENA) was known to few, and those familiar with this post made sure to keep it under wraps. Shaham arrived to the UAE on his Israeli diplomatic passport, but only a small group of people in Abu Dhabi were aware of his Israeli background. He made sure of it.

Shaham describes how they would sit in various IRENA forums with the Israel sign, and every time he would introduce himself as the Israeli representative, there would be a short pause accompanied by glances of curiosity.

In the months leading up to the Abraham Accords, small and big gestures indicated that something was brewing underground, like the first Israeli athlete to compete under the Israeli national flag, the Year of Tolerance that more openly acknowledged the Jewish community in the Emirates, and more relaxed communication in general. The new atmosphere reflected the changes that were taking place, but nothing could have prepared the Israeli diplomat for the dramatic moment that caught almost everyone off guard.

“Then one day everything changes. Everything developed fully in the last moments, and it’s still developing. Now it’s a different world,” says Shaham.

Since the Abraham Accords were announced on August 18, Shaham’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Israelis from all industries and sectors are looking for ways to connect and engage, an entirely new dynamic for the seasoned diplomat who now finds himself overwhelmed with a plethora of requests.

“We are experiencing a change in such a dramatic way, and we are seeing it throughout Israeli society, from a very understated almost non-existent relationship, to everything. It’s like a boom” says Shaham.

Aside from heading the mission to Irena, Shaham serves as the special envoy for science and applied research which helped establish the basis for much of the innovation-driven dialogue seen today.

“We wanted to base the relationship on innovation, on research, on science -- fields that we both are very engaged in, and not just politics. The main thing I’m trying to do is address interests on both sides, such as agriculture, food security, medicine, energy & water innovation.”

While Shaham has, meanwhile, returned to his home residence of Jerusalem, he is still acting as Israel’s representative to the UAE, and will most likely continue to serve in this capacity until an Ambassador is appointed. His travels between the two countries, up until recently a 20+ hour journey with layovers in Europe, are coming full circle on Thursday, November 26. when he will join FlyDubai CEO Ghaith Al Ghaith for the first official flight between Tel Aviv and Dubai.

“We all grew up on a dream of peace. We grew up knowing that there is going to be somebody on the other side, who reaches out their hand and says, come let’s do it together. Let’s stop this nonsense of us hating each other. We dreamt that it would come and it did come. I’m leaving with a big smile on my face,” says Shaham.

FlyDubai will be operating 14 weekly flights in what will become a visa-free travel experience for both Israelis and Emiratis.

— The writer is a journalist based in New York

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