An Orthodox Jew’s adventures in the UAE

An Orthodox Jew’s adventures in the UAE

Ariella Steinreich of Teaneck talks about her life in Dubai

Ariella Steinreich, second from right, with some friends; from left, they are Sumaiiah Almheiri, Alanoud Alhashmi, Alex Peterfreund, Ambassador Houda Nonoo, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, and Dr. Majid Al Sarrah
Ariella Steinreich, second from right, with some friends; from left, they are Sumaiiah Almheiri, Alanoud Alhashmi, Alex Peterfreund, Ambassador Houda Nonoo, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, and Dr. Majid Al Sarrah

It might seem like an adventure, a modern (and satire-free) Gulliver’s Travels, too fantastic to be other than fiction. One chapter in the story feeds into the next and you turn the page, wondering what might possibly happen next.

But it’s not fiction. It’s the story of Ariella Steinreich.

Ms. Steinreich, 32, was born in Fair Lawn and grew up in Teaneck; she graduated from the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, and then Touro College in Manhattan. She’s an Orthodox Jew — and she has had a first-hand, Dubai-based view of how the paradigm of the relationship between the Gulf States, Israel, and Jews shifted radically.

Ms. Steinreich is a senior vice president at the family business, Steinreich Communications, a public relations, media relations, and targeted messaging firm whose business model includes extensive work with nonprofits in the American Jewish community, among other areas. The firm has eight offices worldwide; the newest one is in the UAE. Ms. Steinreich’s father, Stan, cut his teeth in the media business as a reporter for the New York Times and as a news producer for WABC-TV; he founded Steinreich Communications after spending 20 years in the public relations business. Ms. Steinreich’s brother, Joshua, is the firm’s national media relations manager. (Some Steinreichs do work elsewhere, however; Ms. Steinreich’s mother, Lori, is a school social worker; one of her sisters, Eliana, works for a Jewish nonprofit, and her other sister, Daniella, is a lawyer.)

Ariella Steinreich splits her time between Dubai and New York and New Jersey. In a recent Zoom interview from Dubai, she talked about her experiences.

Jewish Standard: Did you always know you were going to end up in the family business?

Ariella Steinreich: I always wanted to go into public relations. I grew up with a desire to keep on learning more about the art and craft of the business. One of my fondest memories, growing up, was on one of those take-your-daughter-to-work days. How many girls get to be on a TV set with her father, seeing all that was going on? It was a pretty neat experience. People think PR is all about fashion and consumer goods. But it’s more than that. Just look at our portfolio and you can tell.

Calligrapher Thoufeek Zakriya wrote Ms. Steinreich’s name in Hebrew and Arabic.

JS: How did you end up working in the United Arab Emirates in an office in Dubai?

AS: From the time I was very young, my family made many, many trips to Israel, so I was always interested not just in Israel but in that entire part of the world. That was a huge factor in the direction my professional life took. My first job out of college was with Kwittken Company [now called KWT Global after it was bought recently by holding company MDC Partners]. One of the areas of business it dealt with was oil and gas. You can’t touch oil and gas public relations without touching the Gulf. Because I was so interested in the Middle East, they put me in the oil and gas area of the business. Then, when I left Kwittken and went to Burson-Marsteller, now Burson, Cohn & Wolfe, they saw I had a growing expertise in oil and gas as well as in the financial markets, and kept me in those areas. This was way before the Abraham Accords, by the way.

JS: Did you join Steinreich Communications after Burson?

AS: Yes. In November 2014, I left Burson and joined my dad’s firm, and that was when I made the first of my many trips to the Gulf states. By the way, the formal title is the Gulf Cooperation Council. It includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. And the United Arab Emirates consists of seven separate kingdoms, of which Dubai is one. That’s where our offices are located.

JS: What did the GCC look like that November when you first arrived on the scene?

AS: It was about that time that the Gulf became more open to business with the West. It was also then that principals at Jewish-owned businesses began to realize that they, too, could do business in the Gulf. It was almost like a light bulb went off in peoples’ heads. Wait a minute… I can do business with them.

JS: What came between wanting to do business in the GCC and making it happen?

AS: Most Jewish-owned businesses making a foray into the Arab world, where most had never worked before, had a need to make connections and those connections could be made by a firm in the PR business. But it had to be a firm that could help them find business opportunities. Not too many companies in the PR sphere had the background and expertise and have been on the ground in the Gulf since 2011, as Steinreich Communications has been. We were in the right place at the right time, and that was when our business in the area really took off.

JS: What was your personal contribution to the effort?

AS: I attribute a lot of it to the experience I’ve had dealing with reporters in fields not just in oil and gas but in big tech, higher education, and healthcare, areas the GCC countries have begun to diversify in. I’d already pitched and placed stories for other clients in those sectors in major publications like the New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. So it was natural for me to pitch and place stories for businesses there.

The Dubai Frame is a new local landmark.

JS: How has Jewish life in the GCC changed?

AS: I have been fortunate enough to be there during some iconic moments. I’ve seen things I never thought anyone would see, like the formation of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities, which is the umbrella organization for all six countries. The association’s website states its goal, which is for Jewish life to flourish in the Gulf for both residents and visitors. Can you just imagine? The website posts candle-lighting times for each of the six countries, and how interesting is it that there are Jews in each of the six countries who need to know what those times are. What you’ll also find on the website is just incredible — the association’s version of JDate, to help Jewish singles find their bashert. Through the association, it’s now possible for Jews in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait to get a matzah delivery from UAE or Bahrain, which has more access to Passover foods.

JS: What’s the Jewish population of the Gulf States?

AS: There are somewhere between 500 and 800 Jews who live in the UAE, but that’s not an exact number. It’s an estimate. No one is sure, but it’s an expat population, hailing from a number of countries, including the U.K., France, Belgium, South Africa, and Israel as well as the U.S. And it’s growing, which is just remarkable.

As far as Bahrain is concerned, there was already an established Jewish community there. Though it seems a small number, there are 36 native Jewish Bahrainis, as well as expats living and working in the island country. There’s a working synagogue that last held services in 1948 but is holding services now. In fact, there was a recent bar mitzvah, the first in over 16 years. There’s a cemetery, and just last year a Judaica shop opened there, where you can buy, among other things, challah covers and kipot with the country’s name on them. There are about 1,000 Jewish sailors there who are part of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which is stationed in Bahrain. The Bahrainis have always accepted the Jewish population. Jews are very much a part of public life in the country. The Bahraini ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2013 was a woman from one of the old, established Bahraini Jewish families, Houda Nanoo.

JS: When did you know that things were changing?

AS: It was when the pope came to Abu Dhabi in February 2019. The government designated it to be part of “The Year of Tolerance.” I knew then there was going to be a shift in the before and after of a Jewish and then an Israel presence in the area. Then, the Emiratis started construction on the Abrahamic Family Houses. It houses a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. A book released by the government at the same time contained chapters on Judaism.

Then, in June 2019, the Peace to Prosperity conference [part of the White House’s $50 billion economic plan for the Middle East] was held in Bahrain. The Bahrainis invited Israeli journalists to come into the kingdom for the conference. That was a big, big deal. At that time, you couldn’t even access any Israeli website, like the Jerusalem Post. And here they’d invited journalists? It was an amazing thing to hear Hebrew spoken in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. There were so many Jews there for the conference they were able to put together a minyan. Now, you can easily find a minyan in that part of the world.

Ad Diriyah is a tourist attraction in Saudi Arabia.

JS: What’s it been like in the Gulf since the Abraham Accords, which were signed last September?

AS: Amazing in every way. I was there for the Dubai air show, which was held just last month. For the first time, Israel was asked to participate. Some of the companies that exhibited were Astronautica C.A. Ltd., Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems, although I want to note that Israel was asked to participate in the air show before the accords were signed.

I was there when Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, came to the Gulf in June 2021. That, of course, was after the signing. He was there to open the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi, and a consulate in Dubai. That was incredible.

Also, since the accords were signed, the Crossroad of Civilization Museum in Dubai mounted a Holocaust exhibit. In Bahrain, at the synagogue, they held a Yom HaShoah commemoration. As part of the program, an Emirate and a Bahraini spoke of their reaction the first time they visited Yad VaShem.

And if you can imagine it, the Khaleej Times, the first English-language paper in the UAE, ran three special supplements on Israel-Emirate relationships that were all about the positive opportunities and impacts that would come of the new business relationships.

JS: Do you ever visit any other parts of the GCC?

AS: Absolutely. I spend most of my time in Dubai and Bahrain, but I do travel to other parts of the Gulf region. On occasion, I can’t get back for Shabbat and I have to stay put where I find myself, like in Saudi Arabia. It’s not every day that you hear about someone celebrating Shabbat in Saudi Arabia, right? But I did, and the Saudis could not have been more hospitable when I was there. They made sure I had a completely comfortable Shabbat experience.

JS: How did you have to dress? How did you act, considering the kingdom’s treatment of women?

AS: Though I was in the Saudi kingdom as a Jewish woman, I didn’t have to dress as a Saudi. I did make sure that I was following protocol, so I asked the American embassy in Riyadh for guidance on dress. They advised me to dress as a westerner. Since I dress modestly as a matter of course, it wasn’t a problem. A funny story: In October, my picture and the story of my family’s company was a frontpage feature in Saudi Arabia’s big English language newspaper, the Arab News. How crazy is that?

JS: What about being observant? Is that an issue?

AS: There is no issue being an observant Jewish woman in any part of that world. It’s easy to celebrate Shabbat in every one of the six countries. But it’s particularly easy to celebrate Shabbat in Dubai. People go on What’s App and can find what hotel Shabbat is going to be celebrated at. You just stay overnight at the hotel and eat there. It’s quite natural.

In all parts of the Gulf, they respect religion. It’s an important part of their lives. In fact, my Emirati friends—I’ve developed many close friendships with Emiratis and Bahrainis—enjoy kosher food and make sure whenever we go out to eat that we eat at a kosher restaurant. My Emirati and Bahraini friends have become like my family. They insist we eat at one of the kosher restaurants, as opposed to going to just any restaurant where I might only be able to order salad. Typical of Gulf hospitality, they want me to be comfortable.

By the way, the first kosher restaurant in Dubai was in the Armani Hotel. Now, only a few years later, there are four or five kosher restaurants in the UAE alone, along with three kosher caterers.

Ain Dubai is said to be the world’s biggest Ferris wheel.

JS: What about holidays?

AS: For Sukkot this year, 40 Bahraini and Emirati influencers, including government officials, took part in a meal. Many of these same people hosted a Rosh Hashanah gathering for all the Jews in the UAE to come to.

JS: What about misconceptions? What do people in the GCC think about Jews and about Israel?

AS: There are definitely misconceptions, still. But the Gulf states have always been more progressive, more pragmatic. Yes, there are trolls who want to undermine the new reality. But the Emiratis and Bahrainis, who have embraced the opening up of relations, refuse to give in to them.

There was and is a robust push to open business opportunities both before and after the Abraham Accords. I’m a founding member of the UAE Israel Business Council, whose goal is to foster deals between Israel and the UAE. I’m also a founding member of the Gulf Israel Women’s Forum, an offshoot of the Business Council. Israeli founders of the Women’s Forum include Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, and Justine Zwerling, the head of the London Stock Exchange’s Israel Market. The goal is to unite women from Gulf and Israel in friendship and business. That goes a long way toward dispelling misconceptions.

JS: What does this peace with Israel look like in the UAE and Bahrain?

AS: The UAE and Bahrain are not the first Arab countries with which Israel has made peace, or said better, has diplomatic relations. But I’m of the opinion that the peace in the Gulf is special. There’s a huge difference in acceptance in these countries over other places like Jordan and Egypt. Leaders can normalize relations between states, but it’s up to the people to make a warm peace. The way the Emiratis and Bahrainis have embraced it is truly why relations have been such a success.

JS: What are you looking forward to?

AS: I have hopes for the future. I hope that just as Muslims in the Gulf have rethought their misconceptions of Israel, I hope Israelis — and Jews everywhere— will begin to rethink their misconceptions about Muslims. My nephew has a hat that says Bahrain in Hebrew and Arabic. I hope that he, and all the kids of the next generation, won’t even know there were any differences between the nations. I hope someday Emirati kids will go to school in Israel and Israeli kids will go to school in Dubai. I hope they will see no differences because at the end of the day, we have so much in common.

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