Tel Aviv-Dubai road is paved with diamonds

For nearly two decades before the Abraham Accords and the diamond deal that followed, Israel and the UAE were quietly trading in precious stones. The man behind it all: Ahmed Bin Sulayem.

 The DMCC's "Made for Trade Live” at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange Conference (photo credit: Courtesy "Made for Trade Live" participant, with permission)
The DMCC's "Made for Trade Live” at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange Conference
(photo credit: Courtesy "Made for Trade Live" participant, with permission)

The path to peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was paved for two decades in diamonds.

On September 15, 2020, Israel and the UAE signed a normalization agreement on the White House lawn. Two days later, on September 17, a cooperation agreement was signed between the Israel Diamond Exchange and the Dubai Diamond Exchange. As part of the deal, the IDE and the DDE agreed to open offices in each other’s headquarters.

The DDE opened its Ramat Gan office that same year. The IDE opened its Dubai office in February 2022.

However, relations between the two diamond exchanges were not new.

For nearly two decades before the Abraham Accords and the diamond deal that followed, Israel and the UAE were quietly trading in precious stones. The man behind it all: Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive director of the DMCC: Free Trade Zone in Dubai and CEO of the DDE.

 Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive director of the DMCC: Free Trade Zone in Dubai and CEO of the Dubai Diamond Exchange. (credit: Courtesy of DMCC) Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive director of the DMCC: Free Trade Zone in Dubai and CEO of the Dubai Diamond Exchange. (credit: Courtesy of DMCC)

“I’ve been coming to Israel since 2001 – unofficially, of course,” Bin Sulayem told The Jerusalem Post this week in an exclusive interview. “The Abraham Accords were a godsend.”

“I’ve been coming to Israel since 2001 – unofficially, of course. The Abraham Accords were a godsend.”

Ahmed Bin Sulayem

In 2001, Bin Sulayem became a part of the DMCC and decided he wanted to raise up the diamond industry in Dubai.

“We had to understand the market,” he said. “Israel is top in the diamond business, so I had to come here.”

He came to Ramat Gan and met with Shmuel Schnitzer, who was president of the Israel Diamond Exchange at the time.

“He was very supportive,” Bin Sulayem recalled.

Bin Sulayem did not plan to continue visiting Israel or working with the IDE after that first trip, but he ended up returning almost every year and building a network in Israel around diamonds and other commodities as the DMCC continued to grow. Since 2015, the DMCC has been ranked the No. 1 free zone in the world by The Financial Times.

Until 2020, Israeli diamond companies generally entered the zone through foreign partners or subsidiaries. Today, he said, there are 78 Israeli companies in the DMCC and a third of them are in the diamond business.

“Back then, a company would open its Dubai branch through its branch in Switzerland. Today, if the company wants to expand even more, they go through Israel,” he said. “They don’t need to use that other branch.”

On Tuesday, Bin Sulayem was back in Israel, but this time he was there to run a first DMCC event in the country.

On November 29, he hosted “Made for Trade Live” at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange Conference Center. More than 250 Israeli business leaders and entrepreneurs attended. The event was conducted in partnership with 10 Israeli private and public sector entities.

DMCC is considered the world’s most interconnected free zone and the leading trade and enterprise hub for commodities such as diamonds, gold, coffee, tea and agri-food. It is also home to some 21,000 companies.

The DDE was formally established in 2002 under DMCC. Today, it handles around $25 billion in trade – double the IDE.

Last year, Israel exported $188 million in rough diamonds to the UAE. In May, Israel and the UAE signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which eliminated tariffs on diamonds and precious stones from 5% to zero, so trade is expected to increase.

Moreover, the CEPA is expected to add $1.9b. to the UAE’s GDP by 2030 and advance trade beyond $10b. within five years.

In 2021, Israel-UAE trade was worth $1.2b. In the first seven months of 2022, bilateral trade had already hit $1.4b.

Israeli Ambassador to the UAE Amir Hayek told a UAE paper earlier this year that he believes that in the next two or three years “we will see the UAE in the top 10 countries that Israel is trading with.”

At Tuesday’s event, the chairperson of the Israel Export Institute, Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, said that trade has been consistently rising since the signing of the accords.

“The potential with Dubai and with DMCC as a platform for Israeli companies could only develop to a larger scale,” she said. “As a gateway to India and Africa we can create with DMCC an infrastructure for joint ventures that will benefit both.”

Over the last decade, the DMCC has also become a world leader in the distribution of tea; Dubai distributes between 60% and 70% of global tea. Bin Sulayem told the Post that he met with Wissotzky Tea and he is confident there will be cooperation.

In addition, over the past four or five years, the DMCC has been focused on expanding in the coffee area. In January 2022, the DMCC hosted the first-ever World of Coffee Dubai, including more than 200 exhibitors from around the world. It will host the event again this year and Bin Sulayem has invited several Israeli companies to participate. He said he held meetings with top-level representatives of Rami Levy and Landwer about partnerships, too.

In addition, Bin Sulayem said he sees Israelis being involved in crypto, fintech and securities in Dubai through the DMCC, other areas he is expanding.

In June, the Dubai Gold and Commodities Exchange listed the Israeli Shekel Futures Contract – DILS.

Bin Sulayem said that DMCC is even discussing opening a kosher and halal meat center.

“Dubai is naturally one of the best redistribution hubs in the world,” Bin Sulayem said. “The strength is in Dubai’s logistics hub.

“I think Tel Aviv and Dubai have a lot of things in common,” he said.

What’s next?

He believes the next big Abraham Accords business opportunity is in tourism. While tens of thousands of Israelis have traveled to Dubai, far fewer have visited Israel from Dubai, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

“You know what business opportunity was just waiting for the Abraham Accords and peace? To have a pilgrimage that compliments the Hajj, where in one year a Muslim can go to the three holy sites” – the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.

“This is something I think there should be a bigger push on,” he said.