Israel’s President Isaac Herzog started his first visit to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, the latest high-profile diplomatic trip since the countries normalised ties.
It follows a visit by Naftali Bennett last month, the first by an Israeli premier, during which both sides are understood to have discussed Iran’s nuclear programme, a top Israeli security concern.
Herzog, travelling with the first lady, arrived at around 0800 GMT in the UAE capital, where he met with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the president’s office said.
“Beginning the first visit by an Israeli president in the United Arab Emirates,” Herzog tweeted upon arrival. “We were delighted and deeply moved by the warm welcome in Abu Dhabi.”
The visit comes some 16 months after the wealthy Gulf country forged diplomatic ties with Israel, becoming the third Arab nation to do so after Egypt and Jordan.
Herzog also met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the presidential palace, the official Emirati news agency WAM said.
“The national anthems of the two countries were played, while 21 rounds of artillery were fired to welcome his visit,” it reported.
Sheikh Mohammed expressed hope that the visit would enhance bilateral relations, WAM said, adding that the pair discussed cooperation in fields including the economy, trade, investment, development, technology and health.
The president’s office said the meeting lasted for over two hours.
– Geopolitical interests –
“We completely support your security requirements and we condemn in all forms and language any attack on your sovereignty by terrorist groups,” Herzog’s office quoted him as saying during the meeting.
Abu Dhabi was hit this month by a missile and drone attack that killed three foreign workers — the first deadly assault on UAE soil claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels and acknowledged by the Emiratis.
“We are here together to find ways and means to bring full security to people who seek peace in our region,” he added.
Herzog, whose position is largely ceremonial, was also due to meet the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum during the two-day trip — the first official visit to the UAE by an Israeli head of state.
A 2020 normalisation deal between the two countries was one of a series of US-brokered agreements known as the Abraham Accords.
The deals angered the Palestinians and broke with decades of Arab League consensus against recognising Israel until it signs a peace agreement establishing a Palestinian state with a capital in east Jerusalem.
The accords were negotiated by Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who said they would offer Israel new regional allies against Iran and bolster its diplomatic efforts to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Iran is Israel’s long-standing nemesis, and the Jewish state is highly sceptical about ongoing efforts by world powers to revive a 2015 deal that gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear programme.
The UAE has strained relations with Iran, backing government-aligned forces fighting the Tehran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war.
– ‘Transform Middle East’ –
Herzog, who was also set to visit Expo 2020 Dubai and to meet members of the Jewish community, vowed this month that “the bold new partnership” between Israel and the UAE “will transform the Middle East”.
About 200,000 Israelis visited the UAE in the first 12 months after the normalisation deal was signed, and about 40 Israeli businesses have set up there, Israel’s Dubai consulate has said.
Since normalisation the countries have inked economic and trade cooperation deals ranging from tourism to financial services.
Emirati ambassador in Israel Mohamed Al Khaja said ahead of Herzog’s trip that it would enhance bilateral relations “as we aim to sign important economic and trade agreements… in the near future”.
The Abraham Accords were negotiated under former US president Donald Trump and endorsed by President Joe Biden’s administration.
Bahrain and Morocco have also normalised ties with Israel under the accords. Sudan has agreed to do so, but formal diplomatic relations have not yet emerged amid escalating instability in Khartoum.