DUBAI – For years, Israeli businessmen have been slipping in and out of the UAE undercover, traveling with second passports or doing business through third parties.
So when more than two dozen Israeli high-tech executives showed up in Dubai recently, they were hard to miss. While chatting in Hebrew, wander through the marble spaces of the Dubai Mall to the VIP observation deck atop the iconic Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
Less than six weeks had passed since the UAE and Bahrain, another Gulf Arab country, signed the agreements To normalize Relations with Israel and the opening of embassies. But this high-profile delegation of Israeli innovators was clearly entering even before direct flights and other formal protocols.
Their visit was an early fruit of a flirtation between two foes who have been rivals – at least publicly – for decades. But the speed with which the secret affair exploded into the open surprised even seasoned insiders: the grudge that had lasted for more than seven decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict seemed to fade within days.
When Israeli executives presented their offers to major investors from Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, in a luxury hotel ballroom late last month, the two sides clicked. Emiratis sat attentively at round tables dressed in shiny white robes and headdresses, listening to presentations on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and socialization during their breaks.
To the amazement of the Israelis, the Emiratis seemed more interested in the presentation by Tali Nishushtan, CEO of Innovopro, a food technology company that extracts plant-based protein from chickpeas.
“Who would have thought?” Ms Nischuchthan said afterwards, she was enjoying it as it made quite a buzz with a staple in the region being the main ingredient of chickpeas. But the Israelis arrived at a time when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted trade and exposed a vulnerability for the United Arab Emirates: it imports up to 90 percent of its food.
“I think we were all hungry,” said Abu Bakr Siddiq Al Khoury, CEO of Investment House Abu Dhabi Capital Group, adding that the vegan food sector fits perfectly with his group’s investment strategy.
Emirati investors have also shown keen interest in a sensor provided by Yehuntan Bin Hammouzig, founder of agricultural intelligence company Agrint. The sensor “listens” to palm trees and allows early detection of weevils that can eventually destroy the trees from the inside.
The United Arab Emirates has more than 40 million palm trees, which is about a third of the global total. In a promising sign of future cooperation, a potential customer invited Mr. Bin Hammooq, whose sensor is undergoing testing for a year in the UAE through a US subsidiary, to visit his private farm.
Another Emirati investor, Muhammad Mandeel, chief operating officer of the Royal Strategic Partners Group in Abu Dhabi, said he felt a sense of kinship with the Israelis. He narrated how he performed a DNA test and found a match with his rare Babylonian gene in Tel Aviv.
“If we put aside religious ideologies and 70 years fueled by conflict, wars and the media, then we will end up with human beings,” he said in an interview. He added, “We share the same food, the same DNA, and the same appearance,” describing the Israelis as “cousins.”
The Israelis, astonished by the rise of the skyscrapers in Dubai, similar to Las Vegas, from the desert and the warmth of friendly embrace, said that the meeting seemed like a dream that has come true, unlike any dream they have lived in the Arab world before.
Eril Margalit, the Israeli investor and former lawmaker who led the delegation, was invited to the government-owned Dubai TV Studios To appear as a guest The program “Message for Peace” is broadcast in Arabic and English and presented by Youssef Abdel Bari, the famous program host. Shot against a panoramic background of the Dubai and Tel Aviv skyline.
Mr. Abdel Bari said off camera that it was the first time they had hosted an Israeli.
“You could say it’s like falling in love,” said Mr. Abdel-Bari, describing the studio buzz and an interesting sense of modernity.
Speaking on TV in terms of visions, Mr. Margalit said that after London, Paris and New York, the place Israeli entrepreneurs yearned to reach was their region.
He added, “We hope that together we can do something great.”
Mr. Margalit, founder and chairman of JVP, the Jerusalem Venture Capital Fund, chartered a private jet from Tel Aviv to Dubai and filled it with businessmen and correspondents on the four-day visit.
His accompanying delegation included executives from 13 of the fund’s most important investment portfolios, most of whom were visiting Dubai for the first time. Some of them were veterans of elite intelligence and technology units in the Israeli army.
During the trip, he described the UAE as a potential gateway to vast new markets of billions of people. Far from the potential for investing the Emirati oil wealth in Israeli companies, he envisioned a deeper partnership of cutting-edge Israeli technology with Emirati knowledge and influence based on a long history of doing business from the Middle East to Africa and South Asia.
Once they arrived, it quickly became apparent that the Israeli delegation and the Emiratis were well-matched in terms of ambition and adventure.
A welcome message slid under the hotel room doors for Israeli guests bearing the Hebrew greeting “Shalom Alikim”. Signed by the local head of hotel ownership, he also invited them to network to explore business opportunities together.
In contrast to the decades-old “cold peace” between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, this relationship looked different. With these countries, little commercial contact has taken place, and Israeli tourists who venture to those countries are afraid to speak Hebrew in public.
One of the big differences is that the Israelis and the Emiratis have never fought a war, so the relationship comes without the burden of defeat and emotional bloodshed.
Secret ties have grown over decades from a flourishing alliance between Israel and the Arab Gulf states against their common enemy, Iran. Much has been done since the normalization agreements were signed, in the final weeks leading up to the US elections, as President Trump stepped up his pressure to make some final breakthroughs in foreign policy.
Israeli and Emirati officials have already visited and signed agreements to protect investments, civil aviation, and reciprocal visa exemptions to support business and tourism.
David Maidan, a former senior official with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, first visited the UAE with his boss in 2005. Since then he has switched to doing business there, joining the JVP delegation. Mr. Margalit has taken credit for helping clear the way for the newcomers.
“For me, that shuts the wheel,” said Mr. Medan.
JVP delegates also met with government ministers, although the only meeting announced was with the Minister of State for Food Security.
Some Israeli executives were transported to hold secret meetings with the elders during a late-night sheep dinner, on boats to the islands palaces or in jeeps in the desert. But there were no immediate deals to be struck: Emiratis are known to be cautious in business, and one Israeli company has already been under review there for 18 months.
The Emiratis have also taken security precautions, with young plainclothes officers watching the Israelis discreetly throughout the visit. Security-conscious Israelis noticed how safe they felt, even as they walked alone through the alleys of Dubai’s gold and spice souks that have emptied tourists from the epidemic.
Merchants from Afghanistan and elsewhere greeted visitors enthusiastically after inquiring where they came from.
“Come on, we need you!” Urged a seller of jewelery to volunteer that he is from Iran via the Gulf waters.
This symbolism is not lost on Dror Leor, a senior Israeli executive at Coronet, a company that provides AI-based cyber defense. He said his father used to trade weapons with Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“Now I am here because the enemy of my enemy is a friend,” he said.