Israel, UAE have a lot more in common than people think - interview

Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre head Ahmed Bin Sulayem discusses business, diamonds, the UAE, Israel and the Abraham Accords.

The Israeli flag and the UAE flag seen outside the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange where UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja and Israeli President Isaac Herzog held an opening ceremony of the United Arab Emirates embassy in Tel Aviv, July 14, 2021. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
The Israeli flag and the UAE flag seen outside the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange where UAE Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja and Israeli President Isaac Herzog held an opening ceremony of the United Arab Emirates embassy in Tel Aviv, July 14, 2021.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman and CEO of Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre (DMCC), was in Israel recently for a UAE-Israel Business Forum supported by the UAE Embassy in Israel, Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit and the Economy Ministry. He is an important voice from the Emirates who has been supportive of the Abraham Accords.

“From my point of view, as executive chairman and Chief Executive Officer of a Government of Dubai authority on trade and enterprise, I regularly see the impact that the Accords have had on regional trade,” he said. “However, it is so much more than just trade. I believe the best is yet to come.”

Answering a series of questions about the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, which took place last September, he provided key insights into the progress made over the last year.

“Looking back over the past year, a great deal has been accomplished that many people would not have thought possible,” he said. “This being said, from the point of view of many Emirati and Israeli nationals, our success to date is no surprise at all.”

In terms of high profile agreements, one notable story has been the Israel-UAE pipeline deal, “which I believe was the first major deal signed in the wake of the accords [and] was a significant step, as was the establishment of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai,” Bin Sulayem said.

“Closer to my area of business, the opening of reciprocal offices in the Dubai Diamond Exchange and Ramat Gan finally created a formal and direct link for diamonds, one of our mutually important commodities.”

A United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag waves alongside an Israeli flag (credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)A United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag waves alongside an Israeli flag (credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)

These are not PR stunts, he points out, but the result of an underlying effort by our respective leaders to highlight our common ground in culture, trade, business and community.

“Having worked in the diamond industry for almost 20 years, I’ve worked closely with the Israeli community for the majority of that time and never had any issues whatsoever,” he said.

“It suits the narrative of big media to stoke the fire of our differences when the reality is that Israel and the UAE have a lot more in common than most people think. Ultimately, group-identity politics doesn’t work – and our ongoing success is a testament to that.”

THE UAE leadership has seen the accords as a concrete step in the right direction, Bin Sulayem said, which has proven to be the case in many areas. “We have also seen an enormous amount of interest from Israeli businesses in setting up in our free zone and becoming a member of the Dubai Diamond Exchange. You only have to look at the value of diamonds traded at the DDE – and the number of tenders held there that were attended by Israelis – to see that there has been a substantial positive impact on the sector.”

And “It’s not just about diamonds – business is now smoother,” he said. “Middlemen are no longer required, and things are more transparent than ever. In my opinion, this should have happened years ago.”

Diamonds are one of those unique commodities that see major trade in Israel, the UAE and some other hubs. “As far as DMCC is concerned, every business department and service that has been offered, even outside of diamonds, is enjoying a positive influence or uptick – particularly coffee, tea, gold and crypto,” its CEO said.

“Upon reflection, the accords have given me an opportunity to utilize my years of experience in dealing with diamantaires [gem-quality diamond manufacturers] to explore other business opportunities, which are now coming to fruition.”

Bin Sulayem said that around the time the accords were signed, he took the opportunity to meet with Jewish businesspeople outside of Israel, in places like Belgium or New York. “Today, we continue our dialogue with the Orthodox [Jewish] Chamber of Commerce to enhance trade opportunities. People tend to focus on the regional benefits of the accords when, in fact, the chain of benefits is truly global.”

The accords have exceeded expectations on both sides, he believes. “From our side, we want to achieve a lot more,” he said. “It’s in Dubai’s nature – each time it reaches a new agreement, expect us to build on that foundation. I think a competitive nature and sound leadership of both countries will illustrate what heights the accords can reach.”

Then the pandemic came – what was the challenge it posed?

THE PEACE between Israel and the UAE occurred during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on travel and other issues were hurdles. “It slowed the influx of partnerships and also of travel between the two countries, though as restrictions are lifted, we are encouragingly seeing this activity pick up again,” he said.

“In understanding that any reduction in Abraham Accord-related activity is largely due to the pandemic, I do think that both the UAE and Israel are satisfied with what they have achieved collectively.”

Despite the pandemic, Bin Sulayem says that his center has opened the Aviv Clinic inside the DMCC, “an initiative in conjunction with the Dubai government. The accords are more than just politics – it’s the manifestation of what both the Israeli and Emirati communities ultimately wanted – socially, religiously and politically.”

He says that the peace treaty is working. “People are surprised because they’ve been educated and conditioned around group-identity politics, which as we know, do not work. Not everyone has the same opinion; it’s a lazy way of looking at things.”

The progress he’s seen isn’t even scratching the surface yet, he points out. “To paraphrase HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ‘The way to peace and prosperity is to have our economies’ interests interconnected – and that will bring peace between our communities.’ I agree that this has been a cornerstone of the peace process and our current economic stability.”

Bin Sulayem said that he was not involved in the initial process of the Abraham Accords. “However, I was always aware of its great potential thanks to my direct involvement with the diamond community over the past two decades, of which Israel is a key market,” he said.

“I first traveled to Israel in 2001 and in a formal capacity as the Kimberley Process Chair in 2016. Since this time, I’ve traveled more frequently, particularly since opening the DMCC Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan in 2020.”

THE FIRST time he heard about the possibilities for peace was through the Peace for Prosperity event in Bahrain in the summer of 2019, a year before the accords took place. “In listening to Jared Kushner’s speech, I want to acknowledge that previous attempts were made, particularly through the continuous efforts of individuals such as Avi Berkowitz, former assistant to [then-]President [Donald] Trump,” he said.

“This was the first tangible progress between our two nations in modern history – and I was not only excited but proud to be a part of it. I knew this would be a major steppingstone for the peace process.”

Bin Sulayem says he had gotten to know Israeli counterparts in the diamond trade through the World Federation of Diamond Bourses, of which the Israel Diamond Exchange is a member.

“It was obvious to me that greater collaboration between our two countries would result in a strong trade partnership that would be beneficial for both the UAE and Israel,” he said. “My view was that creating a link between Dubai and Israel would bring about greater efficiencies and cost-savings in the diamond sector – and in many other industries.”

Israel and the UAE are two nations of tolerance, he said, and Israelis and Emiratis have gotten along in the world and can now bring their skills together openly through the accords.

“We have Jewish communities living throughout the GCC, [Gulf Cooperation Council] who’ve been part of the Arab world for hundreds of years,” Bin Sulayem said.

“I want to put to bed the antisemitic behavior purveyed through the international media and to show the actual reality of the accords – something we’ll achieve through the successes of our growing collaboration.”