Israelis doing business in Dubai will wait out storm

"The whole world wants Israeli hi-tech, agricultural and medical products, and that includes in the UAE."

By RON FRIEDMAN
March 3, 2010 05:11
Dubai's Police Chief Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim

dubai police chief tamim khalfan 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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A day after Dubai police chief Lt.-Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim said travelers suspected of being Israeli would not be allowed into the country, Israeli businesspeople who visit there regularly said his statement was mostly hot air.

The police chief made the statement following the killing of senior Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in the city, an act the Emirates authorities blame on the Mossad. He said the authorities would identify holders of Israeli passports even if they traveled under foreign passports.

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While not rushing to come forth and identify themselves in the media, frequent Israeli visitors to Dubai responded nonchalantly to questions about the threat posed to their business dealings, and said they thought the episode would soon blow over.

“The bottom line is that the whole world wants Israeli hi-tech, agricultural and medical products, and that includes the residents of the United Arab Emirates,” said S., an Israeli-American trade promoter who travels to Dubai several times a year. “If they need the product, they quickly learn to ignore its origin.”

S. noted, “The police chief said that they will bar the entrance of people with dual citizenship, but there is no way they can find out if someone carries an Israeli passport aside from the one they present at the border patrol. He, like many other anti-Semites, seems to think he can sniff out Jews or Israelis, but really there is no way of knowing. He knows that, too, but because of the pervasive anti-Israel sentiment in the country at the moment, he has to at least pretend that he can do something. Otherwise, he won’t be around much longer.”

According to S., being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel in the Gulf is more a matter of appearance than reality.

“The problem isn’t if you purchase an Israeli product, the problem is what happens if your neighbor finds out you purchased it,” he said.

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S. said he found that the anti-Israel sentiment seemed to lessen among the younger generation.

“Many younger people don’t like the strict civil and religious dictates and choose to ignore the mind-set disseminated by the authorities. For them, buying Israeli products may be a way of sticking it to the man,” he suggested.

“I once attended a trade show in Dubai where a man wearing a long jalabiya, a checkered keffiyeh, and sporting a long Wahhabi-style beard approached me,” S. recalled. “We started talking business, and he mentioned that he wanted to buy products from my country. Since I was there representing an American company, I assumed he was talking about the United States, but then he pointed to my business card and said it again: ‘I want to buy products from your country.’ He was pointing at the Israeli cellphone number on my business card.”

Another man, Samer, who asked that his last name not be included in the article, moved to Dubai with his Israeli wife and young child two years ago. Originally from Jordan, he received Israeli citizenship after marrying her. The couple came to Dubai in search of a better life and with hopes of opening a successful import business.

Things didn’t prove easy, and the economic crisis that hit the city last year hurt their finances. The couple plans to return to Israel shortly, but in the meantime, Samer sells Israeli-made painting and construction equipment to Dubai’s royalty and elites.

“In Israel, I worked in construction; here I import machines made by Israeli paint companies that measure walls and buildings with a laser that tells the customer how much paint will be needed to recolor a wall. The sheikhs here love that kind of stuff, even though they know it comes from Israel and says ‘Made in Israel’ clearly on the label,” said Samer.

He added that he hadn’t met other Israelis in Dubai, but knew that many Israeli companies worked through Jordanian representatives.

“The products get here, there’s no question about it. Sometimes you just have to be creative about how you bring them in,” said Samer.

According to Samer’s wife, the contempt of the locals is not limited to Israelis.

“People here are very condescending. If you have a foreign passport, they look down at you,” she said. “We don’t plan on staying here, even if we succeed at business. We miss our family and friends in Israel and in Jordan.”

Noam Zitzman, director-general of Kiryat Haim-based Chalon Le’Arav (window to Arabia), a consultancy firm that specializes in business with the Arab world, said the main Israeli industries active in Dubai were in diamonds, telecommunications and hi-tech. Until a year ago, he said, the agricultural sector was also active there, but since Operation Cast Lead, there had been a drop in demand.

There was a severe lack of accurate information when it came to the levels of business conducted between companies in the countries, Zitzman said, mostly because most of the transactions were carried out through international third parties or transported through Jordan.

“We know of Israelis who work there and even some who live there regularly, but all of them, as far as I know, are there under foreign passports,” he said.

Zitzman said he didn’t believe the police chief or anyone else would try to limit Israeli merchandise entering the country. He did, however, entertain the possibility that some people might want to stop doing business with Israeli companies, at least for the near future, out of concern for what others would think.

“In my opinion, people with foreign passports will continue to travel freely into the country. At worst they will have to face stricter security procedures,” Zitzman speculated.

Both the Israel Export Institute and the international trade division in the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry declined to be interviewed, but the ministry provided the following statement: “Israeli companies that operate within the framework of international companies occasionally find themselves involved in business transactions with Gulf states. The Ministry of Industry Trade and Labor has no precise information about the matter, and the transactions are not recorded as transactions between Israel and the Gulf states.”

S. said he wasn’t sure when his next trip to Dubai would be.

“For the time being, it might be wise to keep a low profile and wait for the storm to pass, but anybody who is running scared simply doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said. “At the end of the day, all the people of Dubai want is to keep things orderly so that they can continue doing business and make money.”

In any case, he said he had no plans to remove the Israeli cellphone number from his business card.   

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