World

Social Media Star Moves From Israel to Dubai, a ‘Betrayal’ to Some Fans

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — All along the Dubai waterfront, Nuseir Yassin kept bumping into fans. An Egyptian tourist asked for a photograph. A yacht club manager from Zimbabwe stopped for a chat. A group of Filipinos gasped and called after him.

“That’s him!” one shouted as Mr. Yassin hurtled home on a scooter. “See you tomorrow!” said another, quoting Mr. Yassin’s catchphrase.

In Dubai, everyone seemed happy to see Mr. Yassin, 30, a social media star who moved here in 2020. Everyone except for some of his fellow Palestinians.

When the United Arab Emirates forged diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, it redrew the geopolitical contours of a region in which Israel had previously been shunned. On a practical level, it allowed Israeli citizens to live and work in Dubai.

A Palestinian born and raised in Israel, Mr. Yassin was one of the first Israeli passport holders — and perhaps the most prominent — to take advantage.

Mr. Yassin’s move helped attract new funding for his tech and production companies, allowing him to quadruple the number of his employees to 120 — and helping lift his social media following to nearly 60 million.

He built that vast global fan base by posting thousands of short, lively videos on his Facebook page. Most of them are enthusiastic takes on an impressive individual, like the Chinese farmer who builds his own robots, or a surprising place, like the Philippine island where twins are unusually common. Some of his videos have been viewed millions of times.

But Mr. Yassin’s move to Dubai, as well as his videos that deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have dented his popularity among the people he knows best: his fellow Palestinians.

Mr. Yassin’s move from Israel to Dubai in 2020 angered some Palestinians who consider the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates an act of betrayal. Credit…Bryan Denton for The New York Times

He is among the roughly 20 percent of Israelis who descend from the Palestinian Arabs who didn’t flee or weren’t expelled from the country in the war surrounding Israel’s formation in 1948.

That has given Palestinian citizens of Israel, as many refer to themselves, a complicated identity. Some have thrived in the Jewish state, becoming judges, lawmakers and government ministers.

But many complain of widespread discrimination and feel a solidarity with the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank, under blockade in Gaza and as refugees elsewhere in the Middle East.

Mr. Yassin deals with this complexity by embracing the idea of a mixed identity, acknowledging both his Palestinian background and his Israeli citizenship — a stance that can anger both sides.

“Right now, I actually call myself Israeli-Palestinian,” he said in a recent interview in Dubai. “Saying I’m both Israeli and Palestinian is an amazing middle finger to anybody that doesn’t like the other country.”

In his videos, he opposes the West Bank occupation, highlights discrimination within Israel and supports the creation of a Palestinian state.

But he also often points out positive aspects of Israel, like the country’s high number of Arab doctors. He condemns Palestinian antisemitism. And he has framed the conflict as one between two sovereign countries rather than occupier and occupied.

That deflection from the power imbalance in the conflict has infuriated some Palestinians, as has his move to Dubai.

To Palestinians, the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was an act of betrayal because it demonstrated that the Emirates no longer saw Palestinian sovereignty as a prerequisite for Israeli relations. By taking advantage of that agreement, known as the Abraham Accords, Mr. Yassin was perceived by many to have abandoned his own.

“He’s gone beyond the betrayal of Palestinians,” said Ramzi Abbasi, another prominent Palestinian social media influencer from East Jerusalem whose posts take a far more critical position on Israel. “He’s at the forefront of promoting normalization and diminishing Palestinian rights in public discourse.”

Leaders from Bahrain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates in 2020 with President Donald J. Trump in Washington at the signing of the Abraham Accords.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

To a less vocal group of Palestinians, though, Mr. Yassin’s bridge-building — and his presence in the Emirates — is welcome.

“You need people like Nuseir to show that we can live together,” said Asaad Joubran, a Palestinian Israeli who is the co-leader of a community of Jewish and Arab parents who send their children to mixed schools. “You can leverage these agreements, the Abraham Accords, towards improving the situation of Palestinians,” he added.

Mr. Yassin’s complex journey began in February 1992, when he was born to a middle-class Muslim family in Arraba, an Arab town in northern Israel. His father, a psychologist, and his mother, a special needs teacher, considered themselves both Palestinian and Israeli, his mother, Umaima, said in an interview.

Growing up in a country where Arabs and Jews often live in siloed worlds, Mr. Yassin had no Jewish friends. He perfected his English by chatting online, but never became totally comfortable in Hebrew.

He left Israel at 18 after winning a scholarship to Harvard. His eagerness to go, he said, was partly in frustration at the conservatism of Arab society and partly because he feared his prospects in the Israeli tech industry might be limited because of his Arab background.

Arabs in Israel are mostly exempted from compulsory military service, and few enroll voluntarily, to avoid fighting fellow Palestinians. That makes it harder for them to penetrate professional fields, particularly the tech industry, where researchers have found that elite Israeli military experience makes it easier to get hired.

“I wanted to be an astronaut for the longest time,” Mr. Yassin said. Then he realized he would probably need a military career to make that happen. “I was, like, ‘Well, there goes that dream.’”

At Harvard, where he majored in economics and minored in computer science, Mr. Yassin made headlines by joining a team of students that sent a hamburger to the edge of space.

Outside class, he developed a malleable national identity. He made his first Jewish friend and helped lead a group of Harvard students on an educational tour through Israel and the West Bank, stopping, among other places, at the tomb of Yasir Arafat.

His time at Harvard “continuously brought movement into his identity,” said Zaki Djemal, the Jewish Israeli who befriended Mr. Yassin, and who later invested in his business. “That fluidity is something that we’re still seeing today.”

Fans stopped Mr. Yassin for a selfie on the street in Dubai.Credit…Andrea DiCenzo for The New York Times

After Harvard, Mr. Yassin moved to New York, working for nearly two years at an online payment company.

But he longed for a more varied life — and used his savings to fund a 1,000-day journey that took him to 64 countries.

On each of those 1,000 days, he posted an original video, usually one-minute long, about his encounters to his Facebook page, Nas Daily; Nas is both his nickname and the Arabic word for “people.”

The videos were snappy, highly edited accounts of the people and places he visited — simplistic and grating to some, but engrossing to many others.

One of his fans was Alyne Tamir, a half-Jewish, half-Mormon American-Israeli whom he met two months into his travel odyssey. Ms. Tamir, a social media star herself, then joined him for much of his trip, later becoming his life partner.

After finishing their journey, the couple moved to Singapore and then, after the Israeli-Emirati normalization, Dubai.

Here, Mr. Yassin built a pair of production and tech companies that post videos twice a week for an ever-growing audience. But the entrepreneur now earns the bulk of his profits by making promotional videos for paying clients, holding social media and video workshops, and designing software.

Fans appreciate his output for its fun, informative and optimistic take on the world. Critics feel he too often ignores the less savory aspects of the places he praises, not least the Emirates, which has funded some of his videos. He has portrayed it as a country at the vanguard of global progress, while downplaying its authoritarian governance.

Mr. Yassin accepts that criticism: He believes democracy isn’t right for every country, and thinks undemocratic countries can sometimes offer their residents better living standards than many democracies do.

In Dubai, he said, “I actually get many more rights that I don’t get in democratic countries. In America, I didn’t get the right to feel secure.”

Employees in the office of NAS Academy, a digital content education platform founded by Mr. Yassin in Dubai.Credit…Andrea DiCenzo for The New York Times

It’s his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, that has attracted the most controversy, particularly from Palestinians.

His posts have criticized Israeli police violence and the segregated nature of Israeli society — and captured on camera a racist outburst he received from two Jewish Israelis. But he has also praised Israel as a place of religious tolerance, called out Arab racism, and refused to pick sides between Israelis and Palestinians because both are “doing something wrong,” he said in one video.

“My people have been at the receiving end of injustice,” Mr. Yassin said in an interview. At same time, he added, “There’s a lot of room for education and growth in the Arab society.”

His ambivalent position has led some Palestinians and Arabs to boycott his shows and projects.

But other Palestinians have a more nuanced position. About half a dozen work for Mr. Yassin’s companies and support his general worldview, even though some don’t agree with what he says about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.

Nizar Salman, a Palestinian-Jordanian who organizes events for Mr. Yassin’s companies, doesn’t support “everything he believes,” Mr. Salman said. “But what I like is that the videos we share on social media have meaning.”

And while the criticism sometimes stings Mr. Yassin, he says it’s ultimately more important to him to build empathy between Israelis and Palestinians than to mollify his most strident critics.

“I have the ability to inspire millions of Jews to rethink what they think about a Palestinian Arab,” he said. “This is my opportunity, and I don’t want to squander it.”

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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