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Jews in the United Arab Emirates

Location United Arab Emirates. Public property

History of the Jews in the United Arab Emirates

Jews had historical and modern presence over the millennia in the Middle East and in the United Arab Emirates UAE. There are recorded meetings with Jewish communities in the geographic territories of the United Arab Emirates.

Rabbi Yehuda Sarna on the UAE’s Jewish Community
“The fact that there is for the first time in centuries a new Jewish community established in the heart of the Arab World is nothing short of historic.” – Newly announced Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of the Emirates (JCE)

Portuguese Colonialism

With the expansion of European colonialism, Portuguese, English and Dutch forces appeared in the Persian Gulf region. By the 18th century, the Bani Yas confederation was the dominant force in most of the area now known as Abu Dhabi, while the Northern Al Qawasim (Al Qasimi) dominated maritime commerce. The Portuguese maintained an influence over the coastal settlements, building forts in the wake of the bloody 16th-century conquests of coastal communities by Albuquerque and the Portuguese commanders who followed him – particularly on the east coast at Muscat, Sohar and Khor Fakkan.

Purple – Portuguese in the Persian Gulf in the 16th and 17th century. Main cities, ports and routes
Map: Hugo Refachinho
A painting of the Portuguese Empire Doba Fortress in Dibba Al-Hisn in 1620
Photo: Public Domain

British Colonialism

The southern coast of the Persian Gulf was known to the British as the “Pirate Coast“,as boats of the Al Qawasim federation harassed British-flagged shipping from the 17th century into the 19th.

A painting depicting the British Expeditionary Force in 1809 sacking the coastal town and port of Ras Al Khaimah.
Public Domain

British bloody expeditions to protect the Indian trade led to campaigns against Ras Al Khaimah and other harbours along the coast, including the Persian Gulf Campaign of 1809 and the more successful campaign of 1819. The following year, Britain and a number of local rulers signed a maritime truce, giving rise to the term Trucial States, which came to define the status of the coastal emirates.

Dhayah Fort at the hill top in Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. In 1819 it was the last bastion of local resistance to the British punitive expedition of 1819. The fall of Dhayah was to pave the way for the signing of the General Maritime Treaty of 1820.
Photo: Alexandermcnabb 

A further treaty was signed in 1843 and, in 1853 the Perpetual Treaty of Maritime Truce was agreed. To this was added the ‘Exclusive Agreements’, signed in 1892, which made the Trucial States a British protectorate.

1838 Map of Oman, showing the peninsula that would become, in 1971, the United Arab Emirates
Photo: Public Domain

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the pearling industry thrived, providing both income and employment to the people of the Persian Gulf. Aware of the potential for the development of natural resources such as oil, following finds in Persia (from 1908) and Mesopotamia (from 1927), a British-led oil company showed an interest in the region. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (British Petroleum) had a 23.75% share in IPC. 

The Jewish Community of UAE

Since the formation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, a small Jewish community grew and lived in the UAE for many years. There is only one known synagogue, in Dubai, which has been open since 2008. The synagogue also welcomes visitors. As of 2019, it is estimated that there are about 150 families to 3,000 Jews who live and worship freely in the UAE. The community includes Jews who call the United Arab Emirates home, as well as Jews who moved to the UAE because they are involved in business and commerce in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The synagogue in Dubai is supported by the UAE, with the appointment of a Minister for Tolerance in 2016 which created of the National Tolerance Programme and official recognition of the Jewish community in the UAE.

Early history

A historical journey to visit far-flung Jewish communities was undertaken by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela from 1165 to 1173 that crossed and tracked some of the areas that are today in the United Arab Emirates, which had also been under the control of the Persians. His trek began as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara (Author : Dumouza, 19th-century engraving)
Public Domain
Public domain
Frontispice de L’Espoir d’Israël et l’itinéraire de Benjamin de Tudela par Menasseh ben Israel, 1666
Public domain

There is controversy about the reasons for his travels. It has been suggested he may have had a commercial motive as well as a religious one. On the other hand, he may have intended to catalogue the Jewish communities on the route to the Holy Land so as to provide a guide to where hospitality may have been found for Jews travelling to the Holy Land. He took the “long road” stopping frequently, meeting people, visiting places, describing occupations and giving a demographic count of Jews in every town and country.

Public Domain

One of the known towns that Benjamin of Tudela reported as having a Jewish community was in a place called “Kis”, located in Ras al-Khaimah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE.

A painting depicting the British Expeditionary Force of 1809 off the coast of Ras Al Khaimah in 1809.
Public Domain

Modern Ras Al Khaimah covers an area of 656 square miles (1700 km²) in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Map of the United Arab Emirates
Derivative works of this file:  UAE Regions map-ar.jpg

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