NEW YORK — Critics have blasted an event on religious tolerance in Washington on Tuesday that is co-hosted by a pro-Israel group and the United Arab Emirates, saying that warming ties between those two power-blocks are bad for the region.
The event, called “Celebrating Tolerance and Fighting Bigotry: Perspectives on Interfaith Progress”, is being jointly held by the UAE embassy in Washington and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which campaigns against anti-Semitism.
It is the latest sign of rapprochement between the Gulf monarchies and Israel, together with its lobbying apparatus in the United States, which has accelerated under the Trump administration amid shared concerns over Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Critics warn that warmer Gulf-Israel ties will hurt the Palestinians, who are under pressure to accept the Trump administration’s long-awaited plan for Middle East peace that is widely tipped to favour Israel at their expense.
Sunjeev Bery, director of Freedom Forward, which campaigns for Washington to cut ties with foreign autocrats, said the event was the latest example of prominent Gulf envoys sharing a stage in the US with pro-Israel stalwarts.
“There’s a deepening alliance between the repressive monarchies of the Middle East and a repressive Israeli government, which essentially functions as a military dictatorship as far as Palestinians are concerned,” Bery told TRT World.
“This drawing closer of the brutal monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration is bad news for anybody who’s concerned about communities in the Middle East being able to chart their own democratic paths forward.”
The UAE embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. TRT World also contacted the ADL’s public relations team and its international affairs director, David Weinberg, who was set to moderate the event. They did not reply.
The event was due to be held at the Washington offices of ADL, which campaigns against anti-Jewish attacks, and, on its website, says: “We stand up for the Jewish State of Israel—the only democratically-elected government in the Middle East.”
The event was framed as a panel discussion on interfaith harmony, featuring Weinberg and such speakers as Rev Johnnie Moore, the US government’s Commissioner for International Religious Freedom.
It also included Sultan al-Remeithi, head of the Abu-Dhabi-based Muslim Council of Elders, Rev Canon Andy Thompson, from an Anglican church in the UAE capital, and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna from New York University.
Rabbi Sarna’s involvement drew specific criticism via the Twitter account NYU for Yemen, which describes itself as a pro-Yemeni coalition of students from NYU, which has a satellite college campus in Abu Dhabi.
In a series of tweets, the group criticised Rabbi Sarna and the event, saying the UAE “is currently bombing Yemen, and waging a campaign of occupation, torture, and disappearance in southern Yemen”.
“Any organization or person that collaborates with the UAE is a pawn in its attempts to launder its public image. You are helping an illiberal force of death, exploitation, and destruction with its PR efforts,” the group said.
Rabbi Sarna did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.
The UAE plays a leading role in Yemen’s war as part of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in 2015 against the Houthi movement to restore the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
All sides have been accused of atrocities in the conflict, which is estimated to have claimedmore than 230,000 lives by the end of 2019, according to a recent UN-commissioned report by the University of Denver.
Israel’s ties with Gulf states have warmed in recent years, primarily over a shared distrust of Iran and its push for regional hegemony.
US President Donald Trump has promoted this detente, seeing Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Middle East allies as key to his policy of tackling Tehran and advancing a regional peace proposal that is due to be released in June, after Ramadan.
Last year, Netanyahu made a landmark visit to Oman. Around the same time, Israel’s national anthem was played for the first time publicly in Abu Dhabi, after Israeli athletes won a judo competition. That ceremony was attended by Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev.
This week’s meeting in Washington was not the first public display of Gulf-Israel rapprochement in the US. In 2017, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief, shared a stage with Efraim Halevy, an ex-director of Mossad.
Also, Mohammad al-Issa, head of the Muslim World League, a Saudi-based Islamic body, has made several public appearances in the US with Robert Satloff, director of the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
This year, Al Issa wrote a letter decryingHolocaust denial.
According to Bery, this week’s event should be seen in the context of shifting geopolitical plates.
“The UAE has long had a free pass in promoting itself as a beacon of calm and luxury while at the same time being heavily engaged in acts of brutality and repression,” Bery told TRT World.
“There's a longstanding public relations strategy that the UAE-ADL event reflects, in which the UAE inaccurately portrays itself as a beacon of openness while slaughtering Yemeni civilians.”