On Thursday, the Israel government urged its citizens not to travel to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, citing the threat of attacks from Iran.
After its chief nuclear physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated last Friday near Tehran, Iran has been threatening to attack Israeli targets. It suspects Israel, which has been accused of being behind the gunshots in the recent killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.
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Israel declined to comment on the killing. But Fakhrizadeh has long been on the radar screen of Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying at a news conference on Iran’s nuclear programme in 2018: “Remember that name.” Israel accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, an accusation refuted by Iran.
Israel has signed diplomatic relations arrangements with the Gulf Arab states of the UAE and Bahrain in recent months, the first normalisation arrangement in a quarter of a century with Arab nations.
The agreements, brokered by the Trump administration, have created widespread enthusiasm in Israel, and for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah this month, thousands of Israeli visitors are expected to fly to the UAE.
That could change following the notice on Thursday.
“Given the threats recently heard by Iranian officials and the past involvement of Iranian officials in terrorist attacks in different countries, there is concern that Iran will try to act in this manner against Israeli targets,” said a statement released by the National Security Council of the Prime Minister.
It has also cautioned against travelling to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq and Africa in the Kurdish zone.
The Israeli military is well prepared to confront the challenges and proxies of Iranian troops in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli media state that the government has also increased security at embassies around the world.
But a particular kind of difficulty is the safety of Israeli tourists, visible and spread out in endless hotels, restaurants and tourist spots.
“This is going to be a nightmare, and I really hope the two governments, the UAE and Israel, are coordinating and doing their best to protect the Israelis,” said Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli counterterrorism official who is now a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Center of National Security Studies.
He added, “I’m really concerned that something might happen, and especially now because of the Fakhrizadeh context, because Iran is really looking for revenge.” Before the travel warning was released, he was thinking.
The Israel Airports Authority reports that nearly 25,000 Israelis will be travelling to the UAE this month on the five airlines currently running the route between Tel Aviv and Dubai and Abu Dhabi Gulf State airports. Celebrities, businessmen and travellers are now flocking to Dubai.
With the coronavirus seeming to be under control in the UAE, during the coming Hanukkah holiday break, it is one of the few quarantine-free travel opportunities for Israelis, contributing to its appeal. Israeli tourists speaking Hebrew may be extra noticeable at a time when few individuals are flying.
Israel also signed with Bahrain a tourism agreement this week.
Amsalem Tours, an Israeli travel agency, said that the demand for travel packages to Dubai was very severe” but did not include precise statistics.
In the past, Iran and its allies have threatened Israeli visitors and Jewish groups. In 2012, in Burgas, Bulgaria, agents of the Lebanese insurgent Hezbollah group attacked a bus carrying Israeli visitors, killing six and injuring hundreds. Israel also charged Iran that year with being behind attacks on Israeli diplomats in Thailand and India.
Concerns over the welfare of Israelis in Dubai are also not uncommon. In 2000, an Israeli ex-colonel was abducted by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, and held in detention in Lebanon until his release from prison in 2004.
Renowned for its glittering shopping malls, ultra-modern skyscrapers and nightlife, Dubai today is a crossroads for tourists from all over the world, including many countries that have no connections with Israel. Due to historical and current trading links, Iran maintains a major presence in Dubai and Dubai is considered to be a major station for Iranian intelligence services. The family of a member of the Iranian militant opposition party in exile, based in California, claims he was kidnapped by Iran while living in Dubai just a few months ago.
Travel agencies in countries around the Middle East and Africa say the UAE has briefly stopped granting new visas to their residents in a potential indication of Emirati security issues.
Israel had a travel alert already in force that cautioned people against non-essential travel to the UAE. For visiting other Arab states in which Israel has peace deals, identical basic concrete threat” advisories are in effect. But the vocabulary of the alert on Thursday was exceptionally rough.
For its part, the UAE is known for its robust security. Dubai’s released major crime figures, home to 3.3 million residents in 2019, with just over 3 million of them foreigners, are among some of the lowest in the world.
Dubai conducted a heavily publicised drill with a police SWAT team storming a replica metro car in October before Israelis started arriving and proposed facial recognition systems could be applied at stations along the driverless track. Experts now agree that the UAE has one of the world’s largest per capita security camera concentrations, a device that has only developed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
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And amid recent tensions, Iran may be reluctant to strike on the soil of the Emirates, preferring to retain its economic interests there. The UAE, meanwhile has gone out of its way to suggest that, amid its own suspicions about Iranian actions, it wants to de-escalate tensions in the region. It called Fakhrizadeh’s murder a “heinous assassination.”
Pavel Israelsky, co-founder of Salam Dubai, said the boom in the bookings of his UAE-based Israeli tour operator was “significant” ahead of the Hanukkah holiday in an interview before Thursday’s advisory was released. Although a couple of Israeli clients have been cancelled because of security issues, he said, “I can say that the UAE is one of the safest places in the world in terms of security resources.”
“I think there is no cause for concern,” Israelsky said. “No place is really safe today.”