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In a first, Hebrew University launches undergrad class in UAE studies

March 15, 2023

By Ruth Marks English

'There was a lacuna in Israel in terms of understanding the UAE beyond the Abraham Accords,' lecturer Moran Zaga told JI

Since the Abraham Accords were signed two-and-a-half years ago, some half a million Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates for diplomacy, business or to sample the Gulf state’s high-end, luxurious tourism. Now, for the first time, an Israeli university has launched a certified undergraduate course offering students the chance to gain a deeper understanding of what its new regional ally is all about.

Titled ‘The Geopolitics of the UAE,’ the course, which started Sunday and is offered within the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, delves into the history of the economic powerhouse, explores its unique physical geography and influential role in a volatile region. The course also looks at the delicate make-up of the country’s people – from the native Arabian tribes to the multinational foreign residents – as well as the political policies and philosophies that turned it into a friend of Israel.

“The Abraham Accords is only a small part of the course,” Moran Zaga, the founder of the program and one of the few researchers of the UAE in Israel, told Jewish Insider.

Rather, she continued, “The central question that we will explore is the stable foundations of the United Arab Emirates, and within that we will learn about the country’s physical geographical, its social geography, its history, about the tribes that make up its population, the structure of its political authority and its political and economic principles.”

Zaga, a political geographer and expert on the Arabian Gulf, said her interest in the UAE began as an undergraduate student at Tel Aviv University in 2005. As the holder of a foreign passport – in addition to her Israeli one – she was afforded the rare opportunity to visit the country despite the absence of diplomatic relations with Israel and has been researching it ever since.

“I got to know the country very well and really fell in love with it,” she said.

While the announcement of the normalization agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in August 2020 caught much of the world by surprise, for Zaga, who had already been studying the Gulf federation for nearly 15 years, the warming of ties was a natural progression.

But, Zaga told JI, she immediately understood that there was a big gap in terms of Israelis’ knowledge of their newfound ally.

“There was a lacuna in Israel in terms of understanding the UAE beyond the Abraham Accords,” Zaga, who was suddenly called on by business leaders and government officials to share her unique insights about the country, explained.

“I tried to share as much as I could,” she said. “Israelis really had no idea about this country – most thought that Dubai was the country, and I worked very hard to close that gap in knowledge.”

As well as educating those in diplomacy, politics and business, Zaga wanted to share her knowledge with other Israelis and began approaching the country’s universities to see if they would be interested in offering a course solely about the UAE.  

“Israeli universities have a very conservative approach to studying the countries in the Gulf,” Zaga explained. “Most of the courses offered focus on Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is just a by-product of that.”

Her offer to create and teach a course dedicated to the UAE was turned down by multiple educational institutions, until she reached renowned Israeli professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies Elie Podeh at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Podeh, a senior research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, and a board member of Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, convinced Julia Rabinovitch, head of the Islamic and Middle Eastern studies department, to fulfill Zaga’s dream and include the course this semester.

On Sunday, Zaga excitedly tweeted a photo from the class saying that it was “full to capacity.” She told JI that 35 students were enrolled and there was already a long waiting list.

“I was so happy to see the amount of interest and love for this subject from the students yesterday,” she said. “Not only did it fulfill my own dream, it also made me see that I am not alone in wanting to know more about this country.”

Zaga said that the class, which will now meet once a week, will include site visits to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and meetings with Emiratis and others who work in the field.

“We will follow the country’s history chronologically and also thematically, we will look at its society, its economy and its politics,” Zaga described. “In addition, we will study the UAE’s geopolitical relations with other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as its relations with the United States and China.”

Asher Fredman, director for Israel at the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, told JI that a long-lasting partnership between the UAE and Israel needed to be based not only on trade and technology, but “on a deep understanding of each other’s history and heritage.” 

“The offering of a course on the UAE at Hebrew University is a very positive step, which will enable Israeli students to gain a greater appreciation both for Emirati culture, and for the UAE’s extremely impressive development in modern times,” he added. 

Launching the course this week, Zaga said she asked the students – a broad mix of secular Israelis, Arabs and even some soldiers – why they had signed up.

“They all said, ‘we understand this is an important country, but we don’t know anything about it,’” Zaga recalled. “They said that they were interested in learning about how a country as small as the UAE managed to have such an influence in the region, how it became an economic success and also about its population.”

There were also many questions about the Gulf nation’s patriotism and as part of the first lesson, Zaga played the UAE’s national anthem, ‘Ishy Bilady’ (Long Live My Nation), to her students.

“It was very moving to hear the UAE national anthem playing in Jerusalem, in a classroom at Hebrew University,” she concluded.