JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel "soon" will open an office focused on renewable energy in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates — even though the two nations have no diplomatic relations, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday.
If opened, the office would be the first formal Israeli presence on the Arabian Peninsula in years and would come despite decades of hostility between it and its Arab neighbors.
Where that office space will be in the capital remains up in the air, the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency said, though it confirmed Israel has the right under its charter as a member to work there.
Responding Friday night to the news, Emirati Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Maryam al-Falasi said the possible office opening "does not represent any change in the position of the UAE or its relations with Israel."
"The functions of missions accredited to IRENA ... do not, under any circumstances, cover any other activities and do not involve any obligation upon the host country with regards to its diplomatic relations or any other relations," al-Falasi said in a statement carried by the state-run WAM news agency.
However, under IRENA's headquarters agreement, Israel could open an office in Abu Dhabi with the "same privileges and immunities as are accorded to diplomatic missions" in a location approved by the UAE.
IRENA has set up a base in Masdar City, a government-backed clean energy campus just outside of the capital, Abu Dhabi. The 144-member organization focuses on renewable energy, something the Emirates has invested heavily into in recent years.
In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the office would be opening "soon" under the IRENA's charter, without elaborating. In a statement, IRENA said its agreement with the UAE gave its members "the right to establish permanent missions accredited to the agency."
"The work of member missions is confined to engagement with the agency ... and bears no implication on the relation between the member of IRENA and the host country," the agency said.
A delegation from Israel visited Abu Dhabi this past week and "inquired into office space" at the agency's office at Masdar, though no agreement was made, said Timothy Hurst, an agency spokesman.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper, which first reported on the plan to open the office, said Dore Gold, director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, visited Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Nahshon said Gold recently had been in the UAE, but declined to give further details.
In the Arab world, Israel only maintains embassies in Egypt and Jordan. The UAE, like the rest of the Arab countries, does not have diplomatic ties with Israel and remain opposed to its occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state.
Israeli passport holders are barred from entering the UAE, a federation of seven emirates, though the government allows Israeli athletes, businessmen and others to enter the country from time to time for competitions and events. Last month, Israeli competitors took part in a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi without wearing their country's flag.
IRENA has been part of a rapprochement between Israel and the Emirates before. In 2010, then-Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau attended an IRENA conference in Abu Dhabi on behalf of his country, becoming the first Cabinet-level official to visit the Emirates.
If opened, the Israel office in Abu Dhabi likely would be its only official outpost on the Arabian Peninsula. Qatar at one point allowed an Israeli trade office to operate there before ordering it closed following a 2008-2009 Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. An earlier Israeli trade office in Oman also has been shuttered since 2000.
But tensions remain between Israel and the UAE, most notably over the 2010 assassination in a Dubai hotel room of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior operative in the Islamic militant group Hamas. Local police there said it was carried out by Israel, and the operation is widely attributed to its Mossad spy agency. Israel has never confirmed or denied involvement.