LOOKING EAST

Gulf-Israel investors can weather discord by cultivating personal ties, Aleph’s Eisenberg says

Tel Aviv-based VC fund and Qatar Airways are among the shareholders in the Freightos shipping rate marketplace, which will trade on Nasdaq

As an early investor in WeWork, Michael Eisenberg says he doesn’t let the inevitable ups and downs of a young, disruptive company shake his faith when he strongly believes in its product.

Similarly, the co-founder of Tel Aviv-based venture capital fund Aleph is confident in Israel’s budding relationship with the Arab Gulf states and excited about the prospects the ties present for the more than 40 companies in his investment portfolio. Ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and lingering hostility even in countries such as Egypt and Jordan that signed peace treaties, he said, are unlikely to derail the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

“The Emiratis are relationship people and they believe in long-term relationships,” said Eisenberg, 51, a native New Yorker who immigrated to Israel after college and whose fund has about $850 million under management. “It will last if we build trust.”

Aleph’s stable of startups has proven attractive to Gulf investors. Freightos, an online marketplace that helps businesses find favorable sea and air cargo shipping rates, said last week that Qatar Airways is among its investors — together with FedEx and several airlines in Europe and Latin America. The disclosure came as Freightos agreed to merge with Tel Aviv-based Gesher, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that will give it a Nasdaq listing and a pro forma enterprise value of about $435 million. Freightos is registered in the Cayman Islands. It has offices in Jerusalem; Hong Kong; Barcelona, Spain; Miami, Florida; and Ramallah, in the West Bank.

Aleph itself was one of six funds chosen by Mubadala, the $250 billion sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, to distribute $100 million in investment to Israeli startups, according to the Wall Street Journal. Eisenberg declined to confirm the report, though he said Mubadala executives recently came to visit his team at Aleph’s airy downtown Tel Aviv office, which is in a restored century-old hotel on Rothschild Boulevard.

“I’m super bullish about the Emirates serving not only as a target market, not only as a place for joint ventures, but also as a gateway to Asia,” Eisenberg said. Saudi Arabia, which has many business ties with Israeli companies but has resisted the normalization drive, will come to terms with Israel eventually, he said. President Joe Biden is mulling plans to visit both Israel and Saudi Arabia next month.

The other funds distributing Mubadala Investment Co.’s money to Israeli technology companies are Mangrove Capital Partners, Entrée Capital, Viola Ventures, Pitango and MizMaa, according to the Journal.

Eisenberg stuck with WeWork in the shared-office space business even as other investors pulled out when a planned IPO was scrapped in October 2019. That sent the company’s market valuation plummeting from $47 billion to $8 billion and forced CEO Adam Neumann to resign. Neumann, a former Israeli Navy officer who acquired U.S. citizenship, raised billions of dollars from Japan’s Softbank Vision Fund, whose primary investors were Mubadala and the $600 billion Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. WeWork finally went public through a SPAC merger in October 2021 and is currently worth roughly $4.5 billion, down 18 percent since the end of last year.

“Very few people could have transformed the real estate market the way he did and if you walk into any office now, they’re all designed like WeWork,” Eisenberg said, noting that the company sells $3 billion in services annually. “You know, it takes a little bit of crazy to be an entrepreneur and be told ‘no’ all the time and be abused by the press all the time. And you know, God bless [Neumann] and God bless [new CEO] Sandeep Mathrani for taking it over.”

Eisenberg, an Orthodox Jew and Yeshiva University graduate who covers his head with a yarmulke and lives in Jerusalem, has eight children and writes books in Hebrew applying biblical wisdom to investing. His The Tree of Life and Prosperity: 21st Century Business Principles from the Book of Genesis was published in English last year. His latest book, Milk, Honey and Uncertainty, hasn’t yet come out in translation. He said regular visits to the Gulf has given him a better appreciation of Islam and reinforced the belief he describes in his books as “respectful tribalism.”

Besides Freightos, Aleph’s interests include Windward, a favorite of risk managers that uses online mapping and artificial intelligence to track maritime traffic around the world. It trades on the London Stock Exchange and Eisenberg says the company has benefited from the global breakdown in shipping logistics.

“Business is good because whenever there are sanctions, you want to know what’s really happening on the seas,” he said. “Not just that, but at the same time we’ve had these COVID-19 lockdowns in China and the supply chain is all snarled up. People want to know, where are my goods?”

Other standouts in Eisenberg’s portfolio include empathy.com, an online platform that helps relatives handle the details of death, such as dealing with probate court, funeral arrangements and settling finances. Healthy.io, which developed a telemedicine app that enables patients with chronic kidney failure to take a urine test at home and deliver the data to a lab by smartphone for analysis, is another Aleph investment.

For Israel, much of the value of normalization with the Gulf is its geographical position and longtime experience as a platform to reach the most dynamic nations and business centers in Southeast Asia, including India and Indonesia, Eisenberg said.

“This whole Eastern Rim opens up to Israel via the Emirates, and it’s going to be very meaningful because Asia is ascendant,” Eisenberg said. “I think you’re going to see alignment between the ascendant nations going forward. Israel and the Emirates are a big part of that.”

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