Fans of Joel Rosenberg’s Middle East apocalyptic fiction can now read his real-time account of real-world peace.
Through behind-the-scenes meetings with kings, princes, and presidents, the Jewish evangelical and New York Times bestselling author had an inside scoop on the Abraham Accords.
For two years, he sat on it.
His new nonfiction book, Enemies and Allies: An Unforgettable Journey inside the Fast-Moving & Immensely Turbulent Modern Middle East, released one year after the signing of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), finally tells the story.
During an evangelical delegation of dialogue to the Gulf nation in 2018, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), told Rosenberg of his groundbreaking and controversial plans—and trusted the author to keep the secret.
Might Saudi Arabia be next? Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) comments to Rosenberg remain off the record. But asked if his reforms might include building the kingdom’s first church, the crown prince described where religious freedom falls in his order of priorities.
Enemies and Allies provides never-before-published accounts of Rosenberg’s interactions with these leaders, in addition to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Included also are exchanges with former president Donald Trump and vice president Mike Pence.
CT interviewed Rosenberg about navigating politics and praying in palaces and about whether he would be willing to lead similar evangelical delegations to Turkey or Iran:
You describe your relationships, especially with the UAE’s MBZ, as ones of “trust.” How did you nurture that? Did you sense it was different than their official diplomatic connections?
I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. Why would Arab Muslim leaders trust a Jewish evangelical US-Israeli citizen?
In the case of King Abdullah, he had read my novel and decided to invite me to his palace rather than ban me from his kingdom forever. The book was about ISIS trying to kill him and blow up his palace. In our first meeting, we spent five days together, and it was not on the record. We were building trust.
I didn’t have that with any of the others. In every case, we were invited rather than us going and knocking on the door. With the case of [MBZ], his ambassador Yousef Al Oteiba had seen the coverage of our Egypt and Jordan trips. He has very good relations with these countries and was able to get the backstory, asking, “Who is this guy Rosenberg? How did it go? Should we do the same?”
I think it has much more to do with being a follower of Jesus Christ. They didn’t know me, but they seemed to trust that followers of Christ who call themselves evangelicals would be trustworthy. That we are genuinely interested in peace, in security in the region, and in a US alliance with the Arab world. And in terms of the expansion of religious freedom, all of them wanted to talk about these things.
They were making a bet that the evangelical community in the United States, while being deeply—though not uniformly—pro-Israel, still has a deep interest in peace and assessing their countries and their reforms fairly. It was the sincerity of our faith that led to trust.
But you still had to nurture trust. How?
I’m sure they vetted me, and in reading my work, they saw I have a deep respect for Muslims. I’m not infected with Islamophobia. I’ve traveled from Morocco to Afghanistan. And I’ve done what I can to strengthen Christian communities in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
I’m not your classic high-profile Christian Zionist who tends to speak of Israel almost exclusively. But in the end, it is sitting there and the type of questions we ask and the tone of our conversation. In John 12:49, Jesus says that the Father commands him what to say and how to say it. Substance is important, but so is style.
You speak of opportunities to pray with different Muslim leaders and even how your delegation explained the gospel to MBS of Saudi Arabia. How do you measure the spiritual impact your efforts had in their lives and nations?
I don’t think it is possible to assess this. We were there to be witnesses for Christ.
In the case of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, if you were accused of proselytizing the future king, it might be a capital offense. But in asking him if the term evangelical is used much in the kingdom, he laughed. We told him we had an ordained pastor in our delegation and asked if we could take a moment to explain what we believe. This was having a respectful conversation, not proselytizing. But it was beautiful.
You could argue there’s not a church built yet in Saudi Arabia, so it wasn’t a huge success. But the fact that he invited us back for a second, longer trip, completely off the record, suggested that we were building trust and that he wanted to go deeper.
Each of these leaders, including MBS, told us some very sensitive things about what they think about peacemaking with Israel. And in the case of MBZ, the biggest fruit is nothing that we take credit for, but the decision of the UAE to make peace with Israel is an answer to decades of people praying for the peace of Jerusalem.
He told us he would do it, and we didn’t leak that. He took a big risk. Why? I think he was trying to build trust with us.
But trust goes both ways. By not leaking it, it created a sense of safety. He could judge that these people are sitting on a massive headline but they have self-restraint to care more about the relationship.
I would defer this to their local leadership. The Christian leaders in some of these countries were rather anxious when they learned this evangelical delegation would be led by a Jewish Israeli American. I was not the poster child for whom they might expect to help them expand relations with their governments. Ironically, the Muslim leaders of their countries were far more secure in reaching out to me than they were—understandably, as they are in charge.
In Egypt, President Sisi, a devout Muslim, met with me five times and invited us to a second visit. This may have provided more confidence for Coptic and evangelical leadership to say this is okay. And in the protocol photo, it was Andrea Zaki who was next to Sisi, while I was out on the edge.
Later, Zaki told me that this was the first meeting he had with Sisi and evangelicals only. This was Sisi honoring them.
I don’t want to overstate this, but it was part of our core values to ask how we could strengthen the local Christian community rather than work around them.
So there may not have been tangible gains, but there were intangible.
To have a photo on the front page of every newspaper in Cairo with the president next to the head of the Protestant community—in his distinctive purple shirt—sent a positive message that our voice is being listened to.
Egypt has a lot of systemic and institutional problems in its relations with Christians. The fact that Sisi honors them and sees them as part of the Egyptian family is important—but it is not sufficient. The question is: How deep will it go? Will every judge, mayor, and policeman also treat Christians respectfully? This is going to take time. Our meetings are not going to solve 1,400 years of troubles.
Your book contains many references to foreign intelligence. A retired CIA station chief helped set up your first meetings with MBZ. How did you navigate such waters? Did you ever feel you were being used for political purposes?
We navigate by being willing to speak with whoever wants to talk to us. Let’s be crystal clear: These Arab leaders have objectives. Their prime objective with us was for their leadership and reforms to be seen positively by the American people—not just in the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department, or the Pentagon.
They realize that Israel has a deep cultural connection to America, such that even amid disagreements the relationship will not break. I think these Arab leaders are concerned—20 years after 9/11—that they have built strong relationships with Washington on the executive level but sometimes not so strong with Congress and almost not at all with the culture or the people.
So how would they do this? [They reasoned:] If there are 60 million evangelicals in the US, maybe we should start meeting some of their leaders. They seem to be peacefully minded and fair. If we get to know them, maybe they will be impressed by our reforms and start thinking about us differently.
I don’t mind this objective. I don’t feel like we’re being used, because we have our own objectives, and they are being mutually achieved. Our objective is to sit in the room with the people who make decisions that affect Christians on the ground in their countries.
And in every case, we were told we were coming off the record, very quietly, just to build a relationship. We said, “That’s good; that’s what we want. We’re not here to get on the front page of your newspapers.” And in every case, at the last moment, they changed that.
Had they always intended that? Maybe, but our motive was to have the relationship and be able to talk not just once but over time.
Were you also a backchannel, expected to take off-the-record comments to American officials?
I don’t think there was any expectation; they have direct channels already. No one asked me to bring a specific type of leader in these delegations. I chose a range, some of whom had close ties with Trump and some who did not—myself included. Some who had good relationships with Congress and some who stayed clear of politics at every level.
I would say we briefed US leaders (and I briefed Israeli leaders) at very senior levels, even about things that were off the record—just so they were aware. I figured in terms of the American and Israeli intelligence services, they probably already knew anyway, but I never got the sense that what I told them they hadn’t heard before.
I did get the sense that they were intrigued how things they knew had been told to us. It suggested not only a level of trust but also a desire to have a more public posture. They weren’t aware the Emiratis or Saudis were willing to do this.
I don’t think they needed a backchannel. They needed a channel to the American evangelical community—to make their case that they are working very hard on sweeping social, economic, and even religious freedom reforms.
Your goal was to build “long-term friendships.” Since the election of President Joe Biden, have Arab leaders continued to reach out to you even as evangelicals are no longer central to the administration?
Yes. Bahrain’s king has invited me to bring a delegation early next year. We will probably also go to the UAE on this trip. I am keeping very close relations with these leaders and their inner circles.
You make a sympathetic case for why we should support these regional leaders, but you also deal with criticisms of their human rights records. How do you keep the balance or decide what to speak about privately as opposed to reporting about on your websites?
The baseline for religious freedom in most of these countries is miserable. I think Jordan is the best; Bahrain is probably second best. The UAE is actually pretty good. If you go back 1,400 years, it’s bad for Christians, and in the last 100 years, it’s been very challenging. But there has been a lot of positive movement. In the UAE, there are 700 freely operating churches, compared to none in Saudi Arabia.
But let’s go to Egypt. They have had a terrible human rights record for centuries, and during [the presidency of former President Hosni] Mubarak, it was terrible. Is it getting better at all? But my baseline is not Mubarak; it is [former President] Mohamed Morsi.
The question is not whether Sisi is doing better than King Abdullah or MBZ. It is: Has Sisi liberated 100 million Muslims from the reign of terror of the Muslim Brotherhood? Yes. Has he rebuilt all the churches burned down or damaged during their era? Yes. Did he build the largest church in the Middle East and give it to Christians on Christmas Eve as a gift? Yes.
He is encouraging religious pluralism and moderation. These are human rights issues, all of them. I think he gets very high marks compared to Morsi and Mubarak.
That being said, is it enough? No. Is he jailing human rights activists and journalists unfairly? Yes, and I say that in the book. There is an overreaction in the Sisi government to ever letting the Muslim Brotherhood emerge again. They have to dial it back.
But I would compare it to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. If you don’t have a state, there are no human rights. And the very existence of the state of Egypt was very much in doubt over the last decade. Lincoln arrested journalists and suspended habeas corpus. But we have to understand the context in which he did it. And a lot of my Coptic Orthodox friends are not giving the Egyptian government enough credit.
You spoke to leaders of your theological commitment to the state of Israel that goes beyond politics. Is there a distinction between your efforts of seeking peace with Israel specifically and regional peace in general?
Religious freedom was far and away our No. 1 objective. Certainly, advancing Arab-Israeli peacemaking was a high objective for us all. Whether a reader of Christianity Today sees current Israel as the beginning of the fulfillment of Bible prophecies or not, I think every reader would want to see it as a secure country living in peace with the other countries of the region, just as they would for Brazil or Ghana.
In a post-Holocaust, post multiple Arab-Israeli war era, advancing peace is a good thing, biblical, and certainly one of our important objectives. Helping advance it is a very important human rights objective—and a Christian virtue.
What about peace with Iran? Several evangelicals took hope in the nuclear deal, but in your book you are critical and clear about the threat. You also mention frequently the challenges posed by Turkey’s President Erdogan. Would you make yourself available to these leaders also to bring an evangelical delegation?
I picture a ticket to Tehran as one-way. I see no scenario where I can picture me personally sitting down with the supreme leader of Iran. If there are other Christian leaders who get an invitation and get to go and be a witness for Christ and talk about these issues, I would strongly support it. But as an Israeli Jewish evangelical, there are certain roles in the body of Christ that I can play and certain ones I can’t.
In terms of Erdogan, I probably would go and meet with him, and I am encouraged that leaders in the Jewish community have met with him. But you’re right; I am very critical and am very concerned. I love the nation of Turkey, and I think he is leading it to the dark side. When I look at Andrew Brunson, basically I see Erdogan as someone who took a hostage. It took two years of the president of the United States imposing sanctions to get him out. This is telling us something diabolical about Erdogan.
I’m grateful for the doors that have opened, but I don’t believe I’m the one to lead every delegation to every country. There are real risks. But the apostle Paul believed he was supposed to go to Rome and meet with Nero. He was in chains, and he knew he probably wasn’t going to get out. And he was right. But he wanted to do it, the Holy Spirit wanted him to do it, and it happened.
We need to be willing as followers of Christ to meet with any leader God tells us to and be a witness for him regardless of the consequence—because we serve a King higher than these leaders.
Your conclusion states, “I cannot fully explain why doors to such intriguing leaders have opened for me.” From your first invitation by King Abdullah through the signing of the Abraham Accords, how do you interpret the role God has given you in the Middle East?
Psalm 119:46 says that we will be God’s witness to kings. Most of Christianity is about day-to-day life, ministering to ordinary people in their struggles. And so much of the Scriptures is about showing particular concern for the poor, vulnerable, and powerless. But sometimes we forget that kings and governors also have to have a friend who knows Jesus and speaks of him with love and respect. Paul was given a mission to speak to leaders, not just to the lost.
A lot of it is checking your own motive. Am I there for a photo op or to be a witness? Or did God open a door, and now it would be sinful not to go through it? I’m not saying it is easy, but these leaders need to be engaged. We’ve met with senior Muslim clerics and spoken about our faith. These are very rare moments.
Yes, people will ask how we could sit down with MBS, a man accused of such a heinous murder [of journalist Jamal Khashoggi]. I’ll say: How could Paul meet with Nero? Even if MBS isn’t Nero—but especially if he is—why shouldn’t I meet with him? Interacting with the government is not verboten in the Christian world.
Justice [Louis] Brandeis used to say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. This book will allow people to look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and maybe some people will have constructive criticism. And maybe God will raise up someone to learn from it and speak with the supreme leader of Iran. Or Turkey. Or China. There are a lot of countries that are not going in the right direction.
[But] I find in some Christian circles a resistance, sometimes even a revulsion, to spend time with high officials out of a feeling that it is courting power and ingratiating yourself for your own ambition or vanity. That we should avoid such contact and remain devoutly nonpolitical. But this runs the risk of missing the mission: Everybody in the world needs a friend who loves Jesus. And God changes the hearts of leaders.
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