The Connector

To crack Emirati market, CEOs line up for ‘speed-dating’ with Israel’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi

Amir Hayek, Israel’s first UAE embassy chief, says tech companies will fuel trade growth between the two countries even in rocky political terrain

Kobi Gideon/Israel Government Press Office

UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan meets Israeli Ambassador Amir Hayek in Abu Dhabi

Bombarded by requests for personal assistance from startup executives hoping to launch operations in the United Arab Emirates, Israeli Ambassador Amir Hayek has developed a technique for identifying the winners and being candid with the rest.

“In one hour, I meet 11 companies,” said Hayek, Israel’s first ambassador to the oil-pumping Gulf state, whose first encounters often take place through a Zoom screen. “It’s speed-dating. Some I tell not to come, some I say if you make a little switch in your approach, you can meet Emirati needs, and some I say, run, because we are looking for the technology you’ve got.”

While the silver-haired, 58-year-old diplomat escorts Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli officials in Abu Dhabi when they meet Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who acceded last month to become president of the UAE, it’s the business side of the job that lights him up. Since the Abraham Accords were signed on the White House lawn in September 2020, normalizing ties with the UAE and Bahrain, the Gulf states have become some of Israel’s biggest trade partners.

Hayek ticks off several reasons why the UAE offers a unique opportunity for Israeli companies: access to capital from some of the world’s biggest investment funds; a diverse expatriate workforce; its position as an international shipping and logistics hub; a government-led “infrastructure for innovation” that includes grants and tax incentives; and the country’s willingness to serve as a beachhead to markets in Arab and Islamic states that Israelis haven’t been able to reach before.

“You might find each and every one of these in another country, but combined, you can find them only in the UAE,” he said from Abu Dhabi in a Zoom interview with The Circuit.

Israel and the UAE signed a free-trade agreement in May that will eliminate customs duties from both countries on some 96 percent of goods, including food, agricultural products, cosmetics, medications and medical equipment. Last week, the Dubai International Chamber announced it will open a Tel Aviv office to help connect Emirati and Israeli businesses. Bilateral trade is projected to increase from $1 billion to $10 billion over the next five years.

Hayek, whose fluent Arabic comes from growing up in an Iraqi Jewish family that fled persecution in Baghdad in the 1950s, says the precarious state of Israel’s current coalition government won’t keep trade with the Gulf from growing. In April, Bennett lost his majority in the 120-seat parliament, and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gathering strength to make a comeback.

“Any Israeli government will support the Abraham Accords,” Hayek said. “Even if the government falls, you won’t see any gap.”

Similarly, he sees little chance that the UAE will pull out of the U.S.-brokered normalization deal it signed alongside Bahrain. Morocco and Sudan joined  soon after. Hayek said he wasn’t ruffled when he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi last month to hear the UAE’s official protest against Israel’s response to clashes with Palestinians at holy sites in Jerusalem.

“We had a good conversation,” he said. “You can tell one thing about the Emiratis – they don’t watch the movie from the middle. They play the movie from the beginning to the end. I trust that the Emiratis see the whole picture and understand what happened on the Temple Mount. No one wants anything bad to happen there and Israel is doing its best to keep the status quo. I hope we will not see those scenes again.”

The Palestinian Authority opposed the Abraham Accords and argues that Arab countries should reject normalization until a just solution is found to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Saudi Arabia, the biggest Arab economy, maintains that fairly addressing Palestinian concerns must precede establishing official ties with Israel. U.S. President Joe Biden is planning a Mideast trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia in July that may include a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

By the end of 2022, the UAE-Israel Business Council expects that close to 1,000 Israeli companies will be operating inside the UAE – or through it to manage activities in the Middle East and Asia. The largest deal between the two countries was the 22% stake that Mubadala Petroleum bought in Israel’s offshore Tamar gas field from Delek Drilling for $1 billion in 2020. It may soon sell half of that to an Israeli investor.

The giant energy company is controlled by Mubadala Investment Co., an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, which has more than $230 billion in assets under management and has invested about $100 million in Israeli venture capital firms. OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based funding platform for startups with multiple investments in the Gulf, was the first Israeli VC to open an office in the UAE that is licensed to operate in the Abu Dhabi Global Market financial center.

Hayek, a father of four, grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikvah and graduated with an accounting degree from Tel Aviv University. He has held a series of senior positions in the Israeli government, including director-general of the Industry and Trade Ministry. Hayek was also at various points chief of the Israeli Export Institute, the Israel Manufacturers Association and the Israel Hotel Association.

“He’s a talented connector,” said Shalom Lipner, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, who recalled that Hayek was invaluable when the Washington-based think tank organized its N7 conference in the Abu Dhabi desert last year, attracting senior officials from all the Arab countries that have official ties with Israel, including Egypt and Jordan.

“With his track record in business and government, Hayek has the right skill-set to manage the delicate details of bringing Arabs and Israelis together,” said Lipner, who was a policy advisor and strategist during his government career for seven Israeli prime ministers.

Hayek’s small staff in the UAE, supplemented by temporary personnel sent from Jerusalem, will grow this year to house one of the largest commercial delegations of any Israeli embassy in the world, he said. Among possible joint ventures are proposals for Emirati investment in Israeli energy exploration, rail projects, airports and seaports, he said. Israeli technology companies with the best chances of success in the UAE are involved with water conservation, energy, telemedicine, medical devices, agrotech, foodtech and fintech, according to Hayek. He also said he’s in frequent touch with his counterpart, Mohamed Al Khaja, the UAE ambassador to Israel.

“We didn’t come here for a 200-meter sprint and neither did the Emiratis,” he said. “We came to run the marathon. We came to build this right, to build the infrastructure, to let people get to know each other, to know each other’s manners, habits, way of doing business, and it takes time. We started very quickly and we are running faster every day.”