UAE-Israel cyber intelligence firm grows with its perch in the Gulf
Black Wall's Israeli founders operated discreetly in Arab countries before the Abraham Accords were signed and have since lifted the curtain. Next stop: Saudi Arabia
Years before the Abraham Accords enabled Emiratis and Israelis to openly run businesses together, Abdulla Baqer operated a back-channel in Dubai that brought Israel’s cybersecurity expertise to the Arab world. Working with intelligence veterans in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, the charismatic entrepreneur helped facilitate the growing commercial ties that were poking through the longtime Arab-Israeli divide.
Those were days when Israel’s computer startups were becoming competitive with Silicon Valley for government contracts around the world. Check Point Software Technologies and CyberArk were sensations on Wall Street and virtually every country in the world sought access to the smartphone-penetrating software made by Israel’s NSO Group. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made a groundbreaking public visit to the Sultanate of Oman in 2018, often described cyber know-how as the linchpin of Israeli diplomacy. Today, Israel is using a similar formula to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest economy.
After the Accords were signed at the White House two years ago, Baqer and his partners unveiled Black Wall Global, a firm that finds little need these days to obscure its mission of marketing Israeli technology to nations that have been reluctant to deal directly with the Jewish state. Baqer, 45, is also co-president of the UAE-Israel Business Council, through which he coaches Israelis on using the United Arab Emirates as a platform for dealing with Arab markets.
“There are a lot of countries that don’t allow Israeli companies to set up shop,” Baqer told The Circuit. “They can always come to the UAE, partner with a UAE company and basically go out and be sold as an Emirati company.”
With Baqer in Dubai, Black Wall is led by a collection of Israeli intelligence veterans and computer scientists. Chairman Asher Ben Artzi worked for 34 years in Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency and its National Police force, becoming director of the Israeli branch of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization. Khoo Boon Hui, who was president of Interpol after retiring as Singapore’s police commissioner, is Black Wall’s honorary president. Others include CEO Anri Amir David, a consultant to Israeli defense contractors and fellow at Russia’s International Academy of Technological Sciences; and Arik Barbing, former director of the Shin Bet’s cyber division.
“We cover it all, from intelligence to cyber defense, border control and protection of critical infrastructure facilities and big data,” Black Wall says on its website. “We provide governments, law enforcement, security forces, and global enterprises with the highest level of safety and security.”
Black Wall is one of the smaller Israeli-led companies that have prospered in the new atmosphere of normalized relations with the Gulf states. Israel and the UAE signed a free-trade agreement in May that eliminates most tariffs and is projected to bring annual trade between the two countries over the next five years to more than $10 billion.
The biggest deal between the Emirates and Israel has been Delek Drilling’s $1 billion sale last year of its stake in an offshore Mediterranean gas field to the UAE’s Mubadala Petroleum. State-owned Israel Aerospace Industries has signed drone-development deals with Edge Group, a government-owned defense company in the UAE. And OurCrowd, a Jerusalem-based venture capital investment platform, set up a subsidiary in the UAE and last November became the first Israeli VC registered by the Abu Dhabi Global Market to operate in the emirate
Baqer points out that the path to Gulf-Israel joint ventures was paved by the Israeli companies that he said operated for decades “under the radar.” The practice, he explained, was to register affiliated corporate entities in third countries and operate through Israeli dual citizens with separate passports who could travel to Arab countries that didn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel.
In the lore of secret dealmaking, the experience of AGT International stands out. The company, led by Israeli entrepreneur Moti Kochavi, won a contract from the Abu Dhabi government in 2008 to create a “smart city” network of surveillance cameras, electronic fences and sensors that paid about $6 billion over seven years. During that period, AGT’s Israeli affiliate, Logic Industries, ferried dozens of engineers each week on an unmarked charter plane between its headquarters in Israel and the UAE capital, according to some of the employees involved who lived in a secure compound under made-up names.
Another example is Israeli defense contractor Elbit Industries, whose American subsidiary had a contract with the Saudi government to sell and service TOW anti-tank missile systems. The relationship came under strain when an employee of Elbit’s American unit died under mysterious circumstances while working in the northwestern Saudi city of Tabuk and the company required Israeli and U.S. diplomatic intervention to retrieve the body.
Now, as president of the new business council, Baqer helps Israelis develop their frontal approach, explaining the nuances of Emirati business culture and guiding them not to expect quick results.
“So many companies came to the UAE at the beginning of [the Abraham Accords] and then they disappeared,” Baqer said. “We decided that we need to help educate Israelis about how Emiratis think and Emiratis about how Israelis think so that they can avoid making mistakes.”
Baqer’s knack for navigating the sensitive realm of Arab-Israeli relations impressed the Israeli founders of the UAE-Israel Business Council. He’s become instrumental in the council’s efforts to promote building further contacts in the Gulf.
“The most interesting thing about trade with the UAE [and Israeli companies] is not so much what trade they’re going to do with the UAE but what trade they’re going to do through the UAE,” Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a co-founder of the business council and a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told The Circuit. “For any Israeli companies that see themselves trading with the East, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are very interesting hubs for them to do it through.”
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid has sought to expand Israel’s relations with Arab countries and enlisted U.S. help during President Joe Biden’s Middle East trip in July. Biden wrote in The Washington Post that he flew directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia for a summit meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders in Jeddah as a “small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.”
Affinity Partners, a private equity firm founded by Jared Kushner, the former White House adviser and son-in-law of former President Donald Trump, plans to invest millions of dollars in Israeli startups from the $2 billion it raised from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Israelis with experience in trade with Saudi Arabia said much has changed in recent years. “It used to be, OK, pretend to be American, pretend to be British, pretend to be this or that,” Shmuel Bar, chief executive of Herzliya, Israel-based IntuView, told The Circuit before Biden’s trip. “That’s no longer the case. When you talk to them, it’s not, ‘let’s play make-believe.’”
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said during Biden’s visit that normalization with Israel was a “strategic option,” but only if Israel agrees first to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Hassan-Nahoum, 48, who grew up in Gibraltar, where her father was mayor and chief minister of the British territory, said Israel’s commercial relations with Saudi Arabia are following a “similar pathway” to the business links with the UAE before the Abraham Accords, when an estimated 200 companies were engaged with the tiny Gulf state. She said many Israeli companies in fields ranging from food-tech to renewable energy are now operating discreetly in the Saudi kingdom.
“We may not get a big shiny ceremony on the White House lawn, but I think Saudi Arabia is in the process of normalizing quietly with Israel,” Hassan-Nahoum said.