The entire interfaith community mourns the loss of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the late president of the UAE, who oversaw dramatic transformation in his country — in terms of both economics and making the UAE a beacon of tolerance for the world.
For 18 years, Sheikh Khalifa led his people toward great progress and prosperity, expanding GDP by 172 percent during his tenure to more than $400 billion annually. Leveraging the UAE’s rich energy resources but also spurring diversification into non-oil industries, he oversaw the rise of Abu Dhabi into a regional standard-bearer and Dubai into a world-class metropolis, replete with skyscrapers such as the Burj Khalifa named in his honor.
But fewer know of the social reforms ushered in during Sheikh Khalifa’s tenure and the progression of humanistic values that accelerated alongside the economic modernization of the UAE. And within this space, the tremendous record of interfaith achievement that extends well beyond the borders of the UAE or the Gulf region.
In 2015, the Emirates passed a law against discrimination in all its forms, creating a foundation of personal security for people from all faiths and nationalities throughout the seven emirates. A year later, a new Ministry of Tolerance initiated its work to strengthen the foundations of relations between people of all faiths. This ministry has formally recognized the newest Jewish community to emerge worldwide.
For those like me who have devoted years to the critical mission of Muslim-Jewish relations and broader interfaith understanding, the “Year of Tolerance” declared by the UAE in 2019 may prove Sheikh Khalifa’s lasting legacy.
I had the honor to be invited to Abu Dhabi for Pope Francis’s arrival, the first papal visit to the Gulf. Pope Francis endorsed the UAE as a “leading global reference in the culture of tolerance, policies, laws and practices.” This vision of tolerance soon after expressed itself in the establishment of the Abraham Accords.
But behind the treaty-signing ceremonies at the White House was a lot of dedication and hard work on the difficult task of cementing tolerance at a society and cultural level in the UAE.
A study by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education has found that the UAE leads the region in culling educational materials of antisemitic and other prejudiced or discriminatory content, demonstrating a depth of commitment to the future of interfaith relations. It is encouraging that the other countries of the Gulf, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, are now close behind, showing the power of example that Sheikh Khalifa has had on his whole region.
We know the mark of any great leader is what survives him. The economic and cultural patrimony left behind by Sheikh Khalifa is manifold and can be seen throughout the country, from its thriving urban areas to its top-level infrastructure and services sector to its museums and a cultural landscape that has adeptly harmonized old and new.
The economic and cultural patrimony left behind by Sheikh Khalifa is manifold and can be seen throughout the country.
Rabbi Marc Schneier
That such diversity incorporates religious life in the UAE is no small feat. This year we will see the opening of the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue. The synagogue is part of the landmark Abrahamic Family House being constructed as an interfaith center for Muslims, Christians and Jews, the three places of worship placed sideby side as a symbol of solidarity.
The synagogue honors the 12th-century rabbinic leader who also was a scientist and the personal physician of Saladin. It is fitting to name the synagogue after someone who is as much a representative of Jewish cultural heritage as he is of Islamic history.
In modern times, Sheikh Khalifa, too, has been a symbol for so many different cultures. He did not merely prophesy the transformation of the UAE into a hub of interfaith tolerance, he used his God-given time with us all to make it happen. For that, Muslims, Christians, Jews and other groups will remain eternally grateful.