What is the state of Israel-UAE cooperation a year after normalization?

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Are the two countries developing massive deals and trade that will reshape the region, or are the economic deals more of a show to put some icing on the diplomatic cake?

BUSINESSMEN FROM Israel and the UAE in Abu Dhabi this week. (photo credit: SIVAN FARAJ)
BUSINESSMEN FROM Israel and the UAE in Abu Dhabi this week.
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAJ)

ABU DHABI – One year after the Abraham Accords were signed, The Jerusalem Post accompanied a delegation of hundreds of Israeli businesspeople and a dozen media outlets to discover where things really stand between Israel and the UAE.

There is no question that there is far more warmth and business between the countries than there is between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, despite the fact that those peace deals date back more than 25 and more than 40 years, respectively.

But let us delve into the details to discover what really has been achieved. Are the two countries developing massive deals and trade that will reshape the region, or are the economic deals more of a show to put some icing on the diplomatic cake?

After four days in a mix of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, maybe the most cogent summary of the state of relations between the peoples came this week from Bank Hapoalim CEO Dov Kotler, who said, “A year ago, we signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] and we did not know what the future would bring. We followed through on the commitment, and we are now here for our third time, and now we have reached the point where it is time for you to come visit us in Israel.”

Crucially, he then added, “Fintech and start-ups [business in the UAE] are like running a marathon and not like running the 100-meter dash.”

DUBAI VIEWED from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)DUBAI VIEWED from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)

In other words, there is plenty of business to be done between Israelis and Emirates, but it will not all happen overnight.

The stigma of doing business with the Jewish state is broken, but as many businesspeople explained in informal talks throughout the week, many Emiratis are more conservative about the speed at which they cut deals with new partners and want to take more time to build personal relationships.

Israel Export Institute chairman Adiv Baruch, at one event, listed off cooperation between Israel and the UAE in “agriculture technology, space exploration, cybersecurity, digital healthcare” and other areas and tried to create a pep-rally style atmosphere, getting the crowd to stand and call out “Salam aleykum” (welcome in Arabic) along with him.

His spirit and the spirit of Yas Investments CEO Yagub Alserkal, who enchanted Israelis at one conference with his properly accented Hebrew, form a positive ecosystem for bilateral trade to jump forward.

Yet, while some might give overly optimistic economic projections of trade between the countries, Baruch said he hopes for $5 billion in trade over the next three years.

Considering that, not long ago, trade with the UAE was under $100 million and all under the radar, the current numbers of more than $600m. and Baruch’s five-year projection are stunning turnarounds.

To put the achievement in perspective, however, Israel’s investment in the US is over $24b., and trade with China has been around $15b. Likewise, the UAE’s trade with China and the US dwarfs what will be achieved between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

YES, RELATIONS have come a long way.

Many Israeli participants were thrilled to see how enthusiastically Emiratis greeted them, at their level of English and their sophistication.

In terms of sophistication, the Post spoke to one UAE medical technology official who had spent 12 years studying medicine in Vancouver.

Another UAE official in telecommunications noted that he had been quietly doing business with Israelis long before the official accords were signed.

One Israeli technology businessman told stories about starting business with the UAE back in 2010 when he had to travel there via third-party countries and was always whisked off from the airport quietly in private entrances, as though he were a Mossad agent.

But there are still many issues.

Some Israeli businesspeople said that the enthusiasm from UAE officials with whom they had talks was not followed up with anything concrete.

One noted that he spent extensive time talking to a UAE official who later revealed that he was merely the son of the person who would really decide things at some later date.

There was a highly successful session about fintech (financial technology) in which several Israeli companies gave serious presentations to UAE investors, and there seemed to be real, concrete intentions to give them seed money.

But some Israeli cyber officials expressed dismay that there were supposed to also be more meetings for them regarding cybersecurity which unexplainably never took place. One official asked simply, “Why am I here?”

Of course, it is quite possible that this same official will get a call next week in Israel, and that there was just some kind of temporary logistical-cultural error.  

This occurred with the delegation when, comically, one of the guides took officials to two different incorrect buildings around the corner from the correct entrance, almost missing one of the key sessions.

One piece of Israel-UAE relations that will continue is the Israeli pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

With 191 countries participating for six months and around 25 million visitors expected, of which around 15 million may visit the Jewish state’s pavilion, the momentous project is a built-in platform for expanding trade ties.

The Israeli pavilion itself is immense, and the technological know-how that Jerusalem is getting to show off to the UAE and the world is spellbinding.

Some Israeli ministers have even expressed hope that the pavilions can be used for making quiet progress with other Muslim countries that are considering joining the Abraham Accords.

At the same time, not far from Israel’s expo is an expo for “the State of Palestine” with long lines, “Jerusalem” written proudly on the roof and an exhibit highlighting Palestinians holding on to keys to “return” to their former homes in Israel.

Despite the conflicting messages, at a major business opening event on Tuesday night, a large number of Emirates were in attendance. They were very enthusiastic about future ties and deals with Israel, and relegated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to being a minor issue which they hoped would gradually improve due to increased Israeli-Arab cooperation.

Israelis will also get help from a powerful group of officials from India who held events during the visit to build trilateral cooperation between the countries and the UAE.

With Space Week at the Expo taking place during the Post’s visit, Shelli Brunswick, Space Foundation COO, issued a statement saying that “Expo 2020 is amazing. When I explored some of the pavilions, it was just inspirational. Expo 2020 is providing a vision of what we can all accomplish together. The event is about all of us coming together, not only to create a wonderful world on the Moon or Mars, but it shows what we can accomplish here on Earth.”

With a flourish, she added a space reference: “The sky is not the limit. There are no limits. Aim higher.”

Perhaps the best balance for Israelis regarding the UAE at this juncture is to be thankful for what has been achieved, to aim for the sky and beyond, but to also keep their expectations realistic and firmly rooted on the ground.