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Saudis positioning for next move as Israel, UAE sign free-trade pact, Emirati VC chief says

Trade agreement signed by Cabinet ministers in Dubai eliminates customs duty on 96% of goods traded between Israel and the Emirates, giving stimulus to business deals after Abraham Accords


Israeli Minister of Economy and Industry Orna Barbivai and Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi

The free-trade agreement signed yesterday between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is generating interest among investors in Saudi Arabia who are patiently making plans for the possibility their own government will soon normalize relations with the Israelis, an Emirati venture capitalist said.

“I would expect that Saudi businessmen are just going to watch, learn and try to position themselves for if and when anything opens up” with Israel, said Sabah al-Binali, executive chairman of OurCrowd Arabia, a UAE-based unit of Israel’s OurCrowd venture capital platform.

Al-Binali spoke to reporters following a ceremony yesterday in Dubai in which Israeli Minister of Economy and Industry Orna Barbivai and Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi signed the agreement. Some 96 percent of goods traded between the two countries, including food, agricultural products, cosmetics, medications and medical equipment, will be exempt from customs duty under the pact.

The effort to tear down trade barriers between Israel and the UAE comes nearly two years after the two nations and the Gulf state of Bahrain signed the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between the former Middle East adversaries. U.S. President Joe Biden is preparing a visit to the Jewish state in late June amid indications that his administration is pressing the Saudis to allow more open business relations with Israel.

Those include a report in the Israeli business publication Globes that dozens of Israeli executives have been allowed to enter Saudi Arabia recently using their Israeli passports, instead of being required to use second passports from other countries, as has long been the practice. Two senior Biden administration officials, meanwhile, traveled to Riyadh last month to discuss a possible agreement between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt that would increase oil production in the region, according to Axios. The White House is also pressing for an agreement finalizing the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, which would facilitate the oil deal.

As Arabs and Israelis grow more comfortable with each other, Al-Binali said it’s time to start work on a more comprehensive regional framework for the holdouts to the Abraham Accords: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The pact signed in Dubai covers regulatory enforcement, customs regulations, government procurement, protection of intellectual property rights and e-commerce.

“It’s one thing to go do six bilateral free-trade agreements,” Al-Binali said in the discussion with reporters by Zoom. “The interesting question is can Israel end up at some point in the future doing a single, bilateral, free-trade agreement with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] itself? Let’s not forget that the GCC is its own economic and political bloc.”

Trade between the UAE and Israel is expected to reach $5 billion in the “upcoming few years,” Al Zeyoudi said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He said trade volume between the two countries since the Abraham Accords were signed has already exceeded $2.5 billion and will probably exceed $2 billion in 2022.

A private-equity fund run by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of former President Donald Trump who led negotiations on the Abraham Accords, has arranged a deal to invest millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund in Israeli startups, the Wall Street Journal reported last month. Jerusalem-based OurCrowd, which invests in some 340 companies through its crowdfunding platform and is the first Israeli venture capital firm licensed in the UAE through the Abu Dhabi Global Market, hired Al-Binali to run its operations in the Gulf.

Al-Binali minimized concern that the UAE might retreat from its growing ties with Israel because of recurring friction with the Palestinians, including clashes in East Jerusalem and the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh during a firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Jenin.

“The Emirati culture is one that, yes, you can sit there and say we don’t like this or we like that and so on, but you know, we stay on course,” Al-Binali said, noting that the relationship was already “stress-tested” by the Israel-Hamas missile battles in Gaza in May 2021. Emiratis “spend a lot of time thinking about these things, and I believe that we will see a lot of resilience.”