The narrowing gulf between us

Despite having landed in Dubai many times before, somehow this time seemed different.

NATHAN KRAPIVENSKY (left) with Khalid al Boom, Deputy CEO, Dubai Investment Development Agency (FDI), Ministry of the Economy. (photo credit: Courtesy)
NATHAN KRAPIVENSKY (left) with Khalid al Boom, Deputy CEO, Dubai Investment Development Agency (FDI), Ministry of the Economy.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Landing in Dubai last Monday morning a familiar sight emerged from beneath the cloud cover – a seemingly endless expanse of barren desert beneath us for the duration of the descent, eventually taking a sharp turn as we banked to the left over the city center to line up to land. It’s a flight path that wasn’t unfamiliar to me, having landed in Dubai countless times on my way to or from my native Australia while living in London. Having made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel last year, it was no longer a transit option, from Tel Aviv in any case. Or so I thought.
Despite having landed in Dubai many times before, somehow this time seemed different. First, of course, the COVID-19 reality struck just as fast as the wheels hit the ground. Dozens of Emirates Airbus A380’s were lined up in storage as the airline joined the rest of us in waiting out the pandemic. But another, even more dramatic change was afoot. This time, I didn’t reach for my passport wallet to hide my Israeli passport in case of inspection. The times they are a-changin’...
This trip was put together quickly as a result of the recent normalization accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain (and the promise of several others to come). With the threat of Israel’s skies closing as the country headed into its second lockdown, I was determined to get out of Tel-Aviv before flights were completely suspended.
I won’t pretend that I am any sort of “pioneer” with respect to Israel-Arab relations; I’d previously flown in and out through transit. Not knowing quite what to expect, I readied myself for a myriad of possible reactions from the locals – “too fast, too soon, mate” was a distinct possibility running through my mind. With that in mind, I decided to embark on a “listening expedition” as I explained it to my colleagues in our Dubai office – I just want to meet people and hear what they have to say.
The intersection between politics and business can be a delicate one to navigate. But I had no trouble connecting with my hosts on a variety of issues, and especially on the new opportunities in innovation.
On outbound investment into Israel the message was consistent – we want access to Israeli technology, but there must be a strategic angle. Passive investment into various start-ups will, of course, flow, but this is not the main game.
As much as they know that access to capital is their strength, UAE investors are equally aware that research and development, human capital and academic support are the Achilles heel of their ability to innovate locally. They want Israeli expertise and know-how in exchange for their investment. Asked which sectors were of particular interest, a common theme emerged – “added value tech” they called it – areas where Israeli expertise could make a meaningful difference to the UAE – defense, cyber security and healthcare were common themes.
On inbound opportunities to the UAE for Israeli companies the message was upbeat. Sitting at the large boardroom table of a senior investment banker, the message was loud and clear – “think bigger, Nathan; the Gulf is bigger than the UAE.” Seeing itself as the “little brother” of its larger Saudi neighbor, the UAE’s Emiratis are keen for Israelis to see beyond their own relatively small market and consider the opportunities further afield. Be it Saudi Arabia, the wider Arab world, the Indian subcontinent or even Southeast Asia, the opportunities for expansion have never been greater.
The UAE’s so-called “free trade zones” provide opportunity for 100% foreign ownership of a corporate entity (unlike the rest of the UAE, which normally requires a local partner to own 51% of the corporation). The prospect of setting up in a no-tax jurisdiction should also entice Israeli companies looking to optimize their tax structuring.
On the cultural front, it also seems we are not quite as distant as we might have thought. “Spend time on building relationships, without expecting immediate return,” was the advice of one senior banker. H said, “It might seem tedious at the start, but it will pay dividends in the longer term.” Arab culture favors long-term relationships of trust. Trust takes time and effort. Put in the effort, and you will be rewarded.
Israelis might take some time to understand this but rushing to feed your UAE business partners a host of various opportunities might not be the best way forward. Rather, think in terms of long, in-depth, in person conversations more than endless emails attaching slide decks.
Whichever way you look at it, the gulf between us is narrowing. Popular wisdom is being thrown out the window and a new air of cooperation is filtering in. If we use it right, the opportunity will make Israel and the region a more prosperous and cohesive place – it’s ours for the taking.
The writer is formerly a speechwriter for Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, and is Co-Head of the Israel desk at the international law firm Taylor Wessing LLP.