Ambassador to the UAE Amir Hayek has been full of energy these days, even more than usual, following the signing of the historic Abraham Accords, which led to the creation of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Soon afterward, Morocco and Sudan signed similar agreements with Israel.
More than bringing about unprecedented normalization with these Muslim countries, these agreements led to cooperative arrangements with the wealthy nations in the Arabian Gulf. Hayek arrived in the Emirates a year ago, when his office consisted of just himself and two other Foreign Ministry employees.
This past August, the Israeli Embassy in the UAE was officially inaugurated, and it is now functioning with a full staff. Aside from business and diplomacy, cultural events with Israeli writers, poets and artists will be held on the premises.
A veteran industrialist, Hayek, 58, has had a productive career in the business world. Some of his former positions include chairman of the Israel Hotel Association; CEO of the Israel Export Institute; and CEO of the Economy Ministry.
Hayek was welcomed in Abu Dhabi with open arms.
“Despite the fact that diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE have been official for a relatively short amount of time,” Hayek explains, “the region is not new to me. In my roles at a number of organizations over the years, I visited Arabian Gulf countries many times before Israel opened official relations with the UAE. Israel has had semi-official offices in Oman and Qatar for some time, and I have been involved in a number of economic joint ventures in these countries, including contact with the ruling authorities.”
What did you find in these countries when you first arrived?
When I first landed in Abu Dhabi in 2021, two things really struck me. I was surprised by how developed the country was and how well it was managed.
On a deeper level, I felt like I had landed in the neighborhood of my beloved parents, who had immigrated to Israel from Iraq. I was now hearing their language once again, and I understood most of it. I was eating their food, living their culture, listening to their music.
As a teenager I listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones at full volume in my room, and I was embarrassed that my parents listened to Fairuz and Umm Kulthum in the living room. Today, while driving in Israel, I listen to Fairuz and Umm Kulthum.
Honestly, when I handed in my official appointment and the Israeli anthem played here for the first time, I was so emotional, I don’t know how I remained standing. The welcome I received here was superb, and it still is.
I don’t, however, delude myself for a minute: they are not doing it for me, but for the country I represent. They are very practical people, and I try to meet their needs.
Do you think the UAE has a special interest in Israel, or were the Abraham Accords just the opening of another market for business?
No, it’s not just pure business. The Abraham Accords were created following a drastic change in the understanding of the Middle East and, in my own opinion, of the entire global geopolitical landscape. The Emirati leadership wanted to change the rules of the game, not just forge an ad hoc alliance. They are masters of planning, executing their plans, and carrying out long-term policies.
When I first arrived on the scene, I immediately set out to learn about their leadership, including the ruling figure, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Once, at the World Economic Forum, I heard Sheikh Mohammed say that he dreams of the day that the last barrel of oil will be shipped out of Abu Dhabi. At first, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But then I realized: He was building up an economy for the day after all the oil was gone, and this is where Israel’s role comes into play.
We are having an economic impact in the UAE by bringing them water and solar energy technologies, agritech, medical devices and educational technologies, which are valued quite highly here. All of these ‘deals’ have huge spillover into their society.
My wife is an innovation researcher, and she advised me that we must create a binational R&D fund involving both countries. So, I discussed this with Prime Minister [Yair] Lapid, and he is fully backing this project. We have raised $50 million, and the Emiratis have also come up with $50m. The fund will begin operations in the very near future.
How are the Abraham Accords creating a new Middle East?
The accords’ goal is to enable us to create a new Middle East that is strong, stable, prosperous, powerful and united and can become a player in the international arena. Israel currently has embassies in Morocco and Bahrain, in addition to the embassies that already exist in Egypt and Jordan. I am a businessman, so I measure everything. And what I have been seeing here is that we have been achieving one goal after another.
Are you also involved in relations with Saudi Arabia, which are heating up now?
The way I see it, I have two options: succeeding at my job or succeeding big time. We must be so successful here in the UAE that all the other countries will ask, Why not us? Trade between Israel and the Emirates reached $1.214 billion in the first half of 2022. In the same period the previous year, it was only $560m. By the end of 2022, we are expecting trade to reach $3b., including tourism, software and services. This makes the UAE Israel’s 13th-largest commercial partner.
These numbers are significant for the Emiratis, too. The free trade agreement that was signed in May took only six months of discussion to complete. This is the quickest Israel has ever come to an understanding with another country. But we’re running a marathon here, not doing sprints. I’m currently working on all the legal and diplomatic arrangements. My goal is to make UAE-Israel business so common that you won’t hear about it on the news.
How have these agreements affected tourism?
The tourism sector is one of the most developed industries in the UAE, and, not surprisingly, the UAE has become a new favorite destination for Israeli travelers. We’ve launched a large number of joint initiatives in the tourism and restaurant sectors, such as a package geared toward American tourists that includes flights with stops in Abu Dhabi, as well as Tel Aviv. The flight between the two countries is only two and a half hours long.
Israel has been investing tremendously in local tourist attractions, such as Formula One races, live performances by Sting and Coldplay, and basketball games with NBA players. Israel offers a variety of sea, desert and urban tourist options.
Four hundred fifty thousand Israelis have already visited the UAE.
It’s only natural that a much smaller number of Emiratis have made a trip to Israel, since only 1.5 million of the 10 million people living in the UAE are citizens. Moreover, Israel was closed to tourists for quite some time during the COVID pandemic, while the UAE remained open. We are working night and day to meet the challenge of welcoming Emirati tourists in Israel.
There are even options here for Israeli tourists who want kosher meals, as well as three Chabad centers in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah. A number of kosher hotels and restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have opened up, and there are plans for more to open in the near future. For the recent Sukkot holidays, one of the hotels was made kosher for a religious Jewish group, and they put up a huge kosher sukkah.
Has the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration affected the relationship between Israel and the UAE?
The excellent momentum is continuing in a positive direction, as the United States remains our greatest ally. No diplomat does whatever he wants. Diplomats carry out the policies created by their country. I have my own opinions on many issues, but I follow the foreign policy of the Israeli government, and the same goes for American diplomats. The policy here is to implement the Abraham Accords.
I tell the Emiratis all the time: ‘In Israel, everything has opposition except for one issue: the Abraham Accords. The entire establishment is behind them 100%.’
Has the Palestinian issue put a damper on relations between the two countries?
We are striving for good relations with the Palestinians as well. We are the first nation to want peace. But it must be built on trust. As long as they shoot rockets into our cities and try to explode bombs on our children, it won’t happen. Our policy is to improve their economy, infrastructure, electric grid and roads. We believe that prosperity can lead to long-term trust that will bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
We will never compromise the security of our citizens and never hand over control to the goodwill of a foreign power.”
A large portion of Arab countries have actively incited against Israel. Are efforts being made to counteract this activity?
The US special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, visited here a few months ago. This important topic has been spoken about many times here and in other Arab countries.
We are making great efforts to correct the way schoolchildren are taught so that these lies won’t continue to be perpetuated as they have for generations. This topic has been taught erroneously in the Arab world, to put it mildly. We are making sure that corrections in school textbooks are being made.
Business relations are important, but so is creating people-to-people connections. To that end, we are in the process of organizing a high school exchange program. Just a short while ago, I had a meeting with the Emirati minister of education, and we spoke about this program.
They are open to learning about Israeli culture, but at their own pace and in their own way. It’s important to them that we do things in a way that fits with their culture. They are definitely excited about these interactions.
Is religion a sensitive topic for the Emiratis?
The UAE is a decidedly tolerant country. They respect the Jewish religion and our customs and tolerate anyone who respects theirs. Even before the Abraham Accords were completed, the UAE government began constructing the Abraham House, which comprises three buildings representing the three Abrahamic religions. The complex is expected to open in the near future. We have not experienced any hostility from any religious authority figure here.
We’ve recently seen the rise of an alliance known as I2U2 between Israel, India, the UAE and the US. How does Israel expect to benefit from this pact?
During the pandemic, everyone around the world learned of the importance of keeping the supply chain intact by all means. The UAE currently has a free trade agreement with both India and Israel, and this lends added value for trade. Israel’s ties with India are excellent, and they are getting even stronger due to cooperation with other partners like the UAE. Strong diplomatic relations are not built on favors but on mutual success and prosperity.
One of my greatest dreams is to create a land transportation route between the two countries. We have begun plans to create a railway line that would pass through Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and ultimately connect to Israel’s train lines. The creation of such a train line would have stupendous ramifications.
But why just trains? Why not highways, too? You can see Amman from Jerusalem, and how far is that from Tel Aviv?
There are five reasons why Israelis should do business with the UAE: 1. Amazing R&D infrastructure. 2. Capital flow. 3. Raw materials at low prices. 4. Human resources. 5. UAE is a springboard to access big new markets.
We are now sending out an official call for Israeli companies to invest with Emirati companies in Africa. This is just the beginning. The train has left the station, and I want to call out to all the businesspeople reading this to hop on as soon as possible before they miss out on this remarkable opportunity.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.