It’s midnight at the Mina A’Salam, a marble-lined resort on the Persian Gulf where palm trees and Rolls-Royces surround the hotel valet in about equal measure. Such glitzy spectacles are commonplace in Dubai, a city whose reputation for ambition is hard to overstate. 

Home to the largest constellation of artificial islands in the world, Dubai is also the iconic movie set where Tom Cruise once dangled from the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa, in a mission about as impossible as the city’s own rise from the desert sands. 

Lacking the large oil reserves of its neighbors in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai made a big bet on tourism and hospitality, producing a futuristic skyline that blends Las Vegas attractions with New York City high-rises all without the crime and vice — but also without the freedoms of Western democracy.  

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And yet, I’ve come to the Mina A’Salam resort not for a stay, but to better understand how the Middle East is increasingly opening up to the rest of the world — changing in ways that may not be harbingers of eventual democracy but represent a generational move toward greater pluralism and religious tolerance.

I’m here to meet with the former U.S. Ambassador to UAE, John Rakolta Jr., before he leaves on an early flight back to the United States. A broad-shouldered septuagenarian with a distinctly Midwestern swagger, Rakolta sports a well-pressed blazer and an impeccably groomed mustache, especially given the hour. 

Rakolta is a Harvard Business School graduate who transformed a family-held, Detroit-based construction firm into one of the largest contractors in the United States. 

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a Republican, Rakolta has long been involved in various civic causes as well as national Republican fundraising, helping support former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and serving on the national finance committee for Mitt Romney’s two presidential runs. Rakolta’s wife, Terry, is also a sibling of Romney’s former sister-in-law, Michigan politician Ronna Romney. Notably, Ronna Romney’s daughter, Ronna Romney McDaniel, is currently serving her third term as chairwoman of the national Republican Party.  

In the resort’s bustling lobby, Rakolta discusses his time as ambassador from 2019 to 2021 and says he’s returned at the country’s request to speak at the World Government Summit, a Davos-style convening where local ministers in kandoras discuss big ideas with global thinkers and jetsetters.

The summit, now in its 10th year, is directed by one of UAE’s rising young stars, the country’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence Omar Sultan Al Olama, who has managed to draw marquee names like Barack Obama and Elon Musk to the gathering. 

But this year, a single name on the program jumps out: Uri Levine, the Israeli co-founder of Waze, a GPS navigation app used extensively throughout the Middle East. 

The Middle East is increasingly opening up to the rest of the world — changing in ways that may not be harbingers of democracy but represent a generational move toward greater pluralism and religious tolerance.

Prior to the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between UAE and Israel, and which were negotiated during Rakolta’s tenure, an Israeli like Levine wouldn’t have received a visa to the UAE, let alone a speaking invitation. But there he was, not only on the program, but standing on an intimate stage in a T-shirt and jeans cracking jokes, fielding questions on startups and doling out his email address. 

Nearly three years since the Abraham Accords, this isn’t all the pact is accomplishing, Rakolta explains. In addition to UAE and Bahrain, today Morocco and Sudan also have opened formal diplomatic relations with Israel. And there have been other pockets of regional thawing even as neighboring Saudi Arabia and Qatar don’t recognize Israel and argue a Palestinian state should be prioritized.

And yet, during the World Cup, Qatar extended visas to Israeli citizens allowing tourism to the country, and in 2022 Saudi Arabia permitted commercial airlines to use airspace for travel between Israel and UAE. There have also been discussions about Saudi Arabia eventually permitting direct flights from Israel to the kingdom for Muslim residents traveling to Mecca on their hajj pilgrimage. 

Back in the UAE there are still other emerging signs of greater religious and cultural pluralism. In the capital city of Abu Dhabi, the Abrahamic Family House — an interfaith space that combines a mosque, synagogue and church for Christian denominations in a single campus — opened in 2023, as did a center in Washington, D.C., for the Alliance of Virtue, an initiative that brings together prominent Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders in support of certain shared values.

“In terms of security, financially and culturally the Abraham Accords have been a success,” says Clifford Smith, the Washington Project director of the Middle East Forum, a right-leaning think tank. “And I don’t think they’re going to be abrogated.”

“They have a massive staying power because they have benefited all three major signatories so well,” Ibish Hussein, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, explains. “The UAE, in particular, has benefited tremendously from new ties with Israel, and vice versa. They are exploring trade, R&D, high-tech ventures and even space exploration. It’s a very serious budding partnership.”

But, he observes, the accords don’t mean a reversal in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will happen anytime soon. In fact, the accords could be read as a sign of the conflict’s intractability with nations looking to make diplomatic decisions based on other factors, knowing the conflict is unlikely to be resolved. And if the accords have faced criticism it’s been for their lack of impact on many of the conflicts that continue to define the Middle East.  

Tamara Cofman Wittes, then a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told The Atlantic after the 2020 pact, “The reality of Palestinian politics is that the overall stalemate, the threat of annexation, and now the Emiratis and Bahrainis making their separate arrangements will cause the Palestinians to dig in. This all just reinforces an instinct toward resistance.”

A recent Arab News-YouGov poll found 64 percent of Palestinians oppose the Abraham Accords with only 10 percent in support. But as experts have repeated to me, attempts to change dynamics in the region are at least better than the status quo alternative. 

As time winds down in our interview, Rakolta is approached by two representatives from the UAE, eager to catch him before he departs for the airport. They’ve come with a special delivery — a golden UAE visa providing long-term access to both work and reside in the country.

The former ambassador is flattered by the gesture. He is bullish about UAE’s welcoming posture to different cultures and faiths, noting the publicly announced plans to allow the construction of a Latter-day Saint temple in Dubai, a first in the region. It’s one more sign among many of growing pluralism there, he says. It’s also maybe a reason he holds onto that golden visa.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.