The Gulf Israel Women's Forum: forging ties across the gulf

The goal of the Forum is to unite women from the Gulf and Israel in friendship and business.

The Gulf-Israel Women's Forum brings children draped in the flags of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE to Jerusalem's Old City.  (photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)
The Gulf-Israel Women's Forum brings children draped in the flags of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE to Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: ISRAEL HADARI)
The UAE-Israel Abraham Peace accords may have been signed by men, but looking at the members of the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum, it is women who will actualize it.
Founded by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and head of the London Stock Exchange’s Israel market, Justine Zwerling, the goal of the Forum is to unite women from the Gulf and Israel in friendship and business. The Forum is a division of the UAE-Israel Business Council, established to foster shared Abu Dhabi-Jerusalem opportunities, economic cooperation and business partnerships. Established in June, it already boasts 2,500 members.
“At London Stock Exchange Group, we believe that a diverse group of colleagues and a commitment to equal opportunities for all are key to driving innovation and building a culture that reflects our global customers and the communities in which we operate around the world,” says Zwerling.
For Hassan-Nahoum, it’s simple.
“Women are natural networkers and collaborators, and we are very practical.”
This truth was evident from the first Zoom meeting of the forum (of which this writer is a member) where Emiratis and Israelis, native and immigrant, met virtually. At first, perhaps a bit shy, the group warmed up upon noticing the many similarities we had among us.
First Zoom call of the Gulf-Israel Women's Forum. Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll is in the bottom row. (Courtesy) First Zoom call of the Gulf-Israel Women's Forum. Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll is in the bottom row. (Courtesy)
More than one woman commented on the various headdresses and what they mean. Unlike Israeli women who may cover their heads for religious reasons, some Emirati women wear a headscarf or “sheila” and a long black coat or “abaya” as cultural attire – but not necessarily for religious reasons and not all the time.
The first meeting was dedicated to meeting one another and learning the differences in business culture in the UAE and Israel. We listened as the women explained that in the UAE, it’s all about relationships.
Leah Tedrow, owner of Evoke International, has lived in the UAE for 13 years. She explains: “Israelis, like Americans and Europeans are very bottom-line oriented. They expect to come in for a week, have a series of meetings and leave with contracts. But it just doesn’t work that way here. Here you have to build relationships. Once you have a strong relationship, Emiratis are extremely loyal, but you must take the time and invest in that relationship.”
Another difference is dress. While Israelis are notoriously casual, Emiratis are always dressed to the nines. “Corona maybe changed this a bit... maybe, but in general, appearance is very important here.”
She is in agreement about the significance of a women’s forum in building these relationships.
“I belong to a lot of women’s forums and groups. I think they are incredibly powerful. We are multitaskers, doers; we get things done. We aren’t bogged down by politics or larger machinations. We can develop the relationships needed to foment good business partnerships.”
Now that UAE is open to Israelis, the women have wasted no time cultivating these relationships, with some even learning Hebrew to better connect with their new “family.”
May Albadi of Abu Dhabi describes her first Yom Kippur.
“I was invited by my family, the Jewish community in the Emirates, to a few holiday events. It was amazing. I’ve read a lot about the holidays but to actually be at the service... Because I can read Hebrew, I followed along. The energy in the room was incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that before. They broke the fast with water and dates, a typical Emirati way of breaking the Ramadan fast. The similarity was striking.
“The most surprising thing to me about Israelis is that we have a lot in common and whenever I meet them, it’s like I’m meeting family.”
Albadi is not alone in that sentiment. Hassan-Nahoum spent eight days in Dubai representing Jerusalem and while there met with members of the forum in person (socially distanced).
“I feel like we are rebuilding Abraham’s tent. We are essentially cousins and it feels like we are making up for lost time. The Emirate people are warm, friendly and very interested in Israel,” says Hassan-Nahoum.
“The opportunities are amazing. In Israel, we are strong in innovation and problem-solving technologies. The Emirates are experienced in building big infrastructure projects. They are a logistical and financial hub and a gateway to the East. We are the two most advanced economies in the Middle East, so we are a great match and we have a real opportunity for peace.
“I believe that the Arab-speaking population of Jerusalem is a natural bridge to the Gulf. East Jerusalem could be the R&D hub for the Middle East.”
"It felt like we were meeting cousins," said forum co-founder Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (front, left) in Dubai. (Photo: Gulf-Israel Women's Forum)"It felt like we were meeting cousins," said forum co-founder Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (front, left) in Dubai. (Photo: Gulf-Israel Women's Forum)

RONIT HARPAZ, an Israeli CEO and board member in the HealthTech ecosystem, also hopes to seize an opportunity to work together to a better future – in women’s representation in the Middle East.
“I see a huge gender disparity. Even though there is 70% women’s representation in the biomed, pharma, digital health space, only 12% are high-level executives who can influence companies’ trajectories and government health policies.”
To tackle this gap, she co-founded WE@HealthTech – an academy that accelerates junior women managers to leadership positions.
“I think being a member of the Gulf-Israel women’s group will provide a tremendous opportunity to learn and adopt models and initiatives from Emirati and Bahrain women leaders that enhance our local diversity efforts.”
Speaking of diversity, Rena Krakowski-Riger, CEO of Exclusively Israel, is an advisory board member to the Abrahamic Business Circle. The Circle, like the UAE and Israel, realizes the importance of tolerance and prosperity as indispensable prerequisites for achieving a lasting peace. Krakowski-Riger was intrigued to learn that half of the government leadership in the UAE is female.
“Israel just followed suit and passed a law about incorporating women into government to achieve the same results. I am a relationship person and look forward to meeting women who may or may not be a business lead but certainly will be my friends,” she remarks.
Sona Nambiar – founder of Kimiyaa, a boutique brand journalism firm in Dubai and research contributor at the Dubai Future Foundation – has lived in the UAE since 1992.
“I see the Israel-UAE epic peace agreement as a harbinger of a new era wherein business, trade and travel deals will rapidly mend fences, build bridges and foster greater interfaith and cultural understanding in the region. This is something I witnessed within a month of joining the UAE-Israel Business Council and then the Gulf-Israel Women’s Business Group. It is such an eye-opener when I interact online with such inspiring Israeli women. Their warmth and the stories they share as professionals and mothers just resonate with my soul and we are already discussing potential areas of business.”
Norah al-Awadhi, an Emirati national, made waves and headlines when she stood atop a skyscraper holding the UAE flag beside her friend Ronny Gonen wrapped in an Israeli flag. When asked why she did it, she explains, “I want to spread and support peace. Seeing all of the women I’m friends with now in Israel and the UAE made me feel stronger and more confident. Because of the energy I felt from all of you, I felt I could do it. I wanted to do it.”
An Emirati Forum member counters and anti-Israel writer's slanderous tweet about the Jewish State's treatment of Ethiopians with this reply, based on what she had learned from the Israelis in the group. (Twitter)An Emirati Forum member counters and anti-Israel writer's slanderous tweet about the Jewish State's treatment of Ethiopians with this reply, based on what she had learned from the Israelis in the group. (Twitter)
As Tredow says, “Signing the accord isn’t enough to make that relationship. We need to build relationships to transition and focus on our similarities and making the world better for our families and the world working toward unity.”
Full-time mom Amina al-Shirawi wondered how she could contribute to the group of businesswomen and social entrepreneurs but soon found her answer.
“Since I stopped working and my focus went to my children, I became involved in youth development issues. This treaty is the seed for our youth and generations to come. We want the Emirati and Israeli youth to learn how to communicate with each other in a very objective way while accepting each other’s differences to understand and respect it as well as appreciating it.
“I’m overwhelmed with the warmth in the relationship between us in the group and how comfortable everyone is. At the end of the day, we are ‘cousins.’ What I really hope is this peace agreement will be more than just a regular treaty but will be an epitome of all future peace-making in the world. I will be part of planting these seeds.”
Whatever her reason for joining, one thing is clear for each woman in the Forum. Being part of this initiative is an honor that feels historic, exciting and a part of something both new and a long time in coming. The idea that leaders make treaties but people make peace is evident in the Israel-Gulf Women’s Forum. The Emirati women feel to us like long-lost relatives who embrace us as we are – and we them.
Fruits of the relationship can already be seen on social media. When a well-known anti-Israel writer tweeted slanderous claims about Israel’s treatment of its Ethiopian citizens, an Emirati Forum member countered his inflammatory remarks based on what she had learned from the Israelis in the group. Meanwhile, the second Zoom call focused on Israeli social initiatives including Shoham, a program in Beit Shemesh that empowers Ethiopian youth to maximize their potential.
As to the future?
“Each day is an exciting roller coaster of ideas, friendships, business, partnerships and cultural exchanges, enrichening the ecosystems and empowering each other,” Zwerling says. “We have a lot in store, such as socially distanced small meetups, and upcoming events – stay tuned!”