While most of Israel was preparing for the Passover holiday, Israeli drivers Dani Pearl and Itai Moldavski landed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to participate in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge off-road race.

The pair was the first team from Israel ever to compete in the race, one of the world’s most prestigious international cross-country rallies, March 24-29.

Though Israel does not have open diplomatic relations with the UAE, ties between Israel and the Arab Gulf states have seemed to warm up in recent weeks. Several days before the race, a flight headed to Israel passed over Saudi airspace for the first time in history.

Pearl and Moldavski, members of the Pearl Pango Racing Team, received an official invitation from the supervisors of the Desert Challenge and entered the UAE with Israeli passports.

Moldavski, who has been off-road racing for more than two decades, thanked the Emirates Motor Sport Federation and Memsi Israel, representative of the International Automobile Federation, for assisting in securing all the requisite permits.

The five-day Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge took drivers over 2,000 km of desert dunes. Photo via Facebook

“Organizers received us in a warm, embracing manner,” Pearl said on day one of the five-day race, which took drivers over 2,000 kilometers of desert dunes.

However, similar to last October when 12 Israeli judokas competed in Abu Dhabi, organizers of the Desert Challenge did not allow the Israeli flag to fly during the competition. The pair’s vehicle, sponsored by Pango of Petah Tikva, was not outfitted with the Israeli flag and the Israelis were registered on official publications as UAE competitors.

“We understand that this was just a first step – it was the first time the Israeli team participated in Abu Dhabi. We’ll take it step by step,” Moldavski told i24 News.

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge celebrated its 28th event this year, with 112 vehicles from 29 countries. Martin Prokop from Czech Republic took first place for automobiles while Pablo Quintanilla of Chile placed first for motorcycles.