The Weekly Circuit
👋 Good Monday morning in the Middle East!
From the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to Israel and the U.S., the partners to the original Abraham Accords will be celebrating the two-year anniversary this week of the groundbreaking normalization agreements. Among the top-drawer events will be a visit to Israel by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who represented his country at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020. While no official announcement has been released, he is expected to meet Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a bevy of the country’s most influential leaders after a three-hour flight from Abu Dhabi.
The UAE’s top diplomat follows in the footsteps of an Emirati business delegation that turned up in Tel Aviv last week to mix with investors and tech startups. In Washington, D.C., the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, said more work needs to be done to bring the Palestinians to the table and reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the behind-the-scenes players in the U.S. diplomatic team that brokered the Abraham Accords was Aryeh Lightstone, the chief of staff to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and author of a new book about the agreement titled, Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace – and What Lies Ahead. In an interview with The Circuit, Lightstone rates the agreements a big success in helping to generate business ties between Israel and its new Arab friends. He says he believes, however, that some five to 10 more nations would have joined the Accords had former President Donald Trump won a second term and kept steering negotiations.
Another event to watch in Abu Dhabi this week is the wedding of Rabbi Levi Duchman, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch congregation in the UAE, to Lea Hadad. Guests will include an array of the country’s government and business leaders, reflecting Duchman’s key role in building Jewish life in the Gulf.
Welcome to The Weekly Circuit, where we cover the Middle East through a business and cultural lens. Read on for the stories, deals and players at the top of the news. Please send comments and story tips to [email protected].
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‘Like the Gold Rush’: Aryeh Lightstone on what more the Abraham Accords could have been
Aryeh Lightstone, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s closest aide, said that the Abraham Accords have “succeeded beyond the imagination of most of the leadership involved” since they were signed two years ago on the White House lawn. On the other hand, Lightstone said, he believes an additional five to 10 countries would have normalized relations with Israel had former President Donald Trump won a second term and followed the playbook that yielded the historic 2020 agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Bigger cohort: “It would have been like the Gold Rush,” Lightstone, 42, who was chief of staff to Friedman and was appointed special envoy for economic normalization in the Middle East, told The Circuit in an interview. He said the Biden administration could have expanded the cohort of nations initiating ties with Israel if it hadn’t been gripped by “Trump derangement syndrome” and distanced itself from the previous president’s achievements when first taking office. President Joe Biden has since said that he “strongly supports” the Abraham Accords.
Kushner fund: Lightstone, an ordained rabbi, now hunts for potential Israeli investments as a consultant to Affinity Partners, the Saudi-backed private equity firm started by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and special White House adviser who led the team that negotiated the Abraham Accords. Lightstone recently wrote a book about his diplomatic experiences titled Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace – and What Lies Ahead, published by Encounter Books.
Fist bump: “If you look at the conversation around President Biden’s trip, it was, ‘Will he or will he not fist-bump or shake hands with the Crown Prince?’” Lightstone said. “That became the conversation and not the fact that if Saudi modernizes, that will be the single greatest achievement for this part of the world, this part being in the Middle East. There are a billion and a half Muslims who look to Saudi Arabia five times a day. There’s an enormous desire to modernize the country. We should be rooting for their success and we should be helping with their success.”
Rapid fire: “Every waking moment of that job was a thrill of a lifetime. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was people who wanted to do what we wanted to help them to do, so that was fantastic. If these Accords had been led by anybody other than President Trump and, possibly, anybody other than Bibi [Netanyahu] as the signatory on behalf of Israel, this likely would have been the greatest news story of the last 20 years. Peace breaking out meaningfully in the Middle East. And expanding. It was rapid fire. Every other Friday, there was another country joining and there were countries that were still calling back after President Trump lost the election. There were countries that were still calling after January 6.”
Abu Dhabi business leaders look to cement ties with Israel in foray to Tel Aviv
Emirati bankers, oil traders and tech entrepreneurs came to downtown Tel Aviv last week, signing a series of agreements and predicting that business connections would continue to strengthen as open Israeli-Emirati relations enter their third year. The Emiratis were welcomed at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange headquarters by Israeli business leaders eager to develop new partnerships in the United Arab Emirates and use the tiny Gulf state as a springboard to markets across the Middle East and Asia, The Circuit reports.
Abundant opportunities: The two-day trip was a chance for “high-profile networking,” said Ahmed Jasim Al Zaabi, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Global Market, which organized the Sept. 6 forum with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. He expressed a desire to “foster stronger ties between the two nations” and said the corporate leaders with whom he was traveling saw “abundant business opportunities.”
Reciprocal visit: Joining Al Zaabi in the delegation were representatives of Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund and its Mubadala Petroleum unit, which paid $1 billion last year for a 20% stake in Israel’s Tamar offshore gas field. The group also included executives from First Abu Dhabi Bank; the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, known as ADNOC; HUB71, the government-backed office park and incubator for startups; and AIQ, an artificial intelligence and cloud computing company, according to a statement. The visit followed a similar trip that an Israeli delegation made to Abu Dhabi in March.
Three MOUs: While in Tel Aviv, representatives from three of the Emirati organizations signed a series of memorandums of understanding with Israeli partners. Those included a cooperation agreement between ADGM and Israel’s Start-Up Nation Central, to work together in supporting the growth of new companies in both countries. The second was to increase cybersecurity literacy, which was signed by the ADGM Academy and Israel’s Avnon Group Middle East. A third memorandum of understanding focused on strengthening data privacy and was signed by regulatory offices from both countries.
A spearhead: “We think it is important to see Israeli companies present in the region,” Yariv Becher, Start-up Nation Central’s vice president of Innovation Diplomacy, told The Circuit. “It would open not just the Gulf but also, it’s a spearhead to other markets. It would create impact over there and would really help in establishing mutual economic exchange.”
Read the full story here.
Al Otaiba: Palestinians the ‘elephant in the room’ in Abraham Accords conversation
At an event last week in Washington, D.C., celebrating the two-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba referred to the Palestinians as “the elephant in the room,” and called on signatories to the Accords to do more to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish Insider’s Gabby Deutch reports. “All the stuff that we’re talking about is great,” Al Otaiba said at the Sept. 8 virtual event organized by the Atlantic Council think tank, “but we can’t avoid talking about the two-state solution. We really can’t.”
Anniversary party: Al Otaiba was joined on the panel by Israeli Ambassador to the UAE Amir Hayek, Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. Abdulla Bin Rashid Al Khalifa and Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current Atlantic Council distinguished fellow. Much of the conversation was spent applauding the regional changes that have come about in the past two years and discussing plans to build upon the Accords, which were brokered by the Trump administration and signed on Sept. 15, 2020.
Room for diplomacy: “We still haven’t mentioned the word Palestine,” Al Otaiba said about 40 minutes into the hour-long event. “One of the biggest criticisms of the Abraham Accords, when it came out, was [that] it doesn’t solve the two-state solution. I don’t think it was meant to solve — I think it was meant to buy space and time to create room for diplomacy to address the two-state solution. I still believe the two-state solution is the only game in town. I think we need to pursue it.”
Including Palestinians: One way to involve the Palestinians in the expanding regional architecture is to bring them into the N7, Al Otaiba said, referring to the conference organized last year by the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation, with participants from seven nations that had normalized ties (UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Israel).
Trust first: Hayek suggested the Palestinians should only come to the table after Israelis and Palestinians improve their own ties. “There is no country in the world that would like peace with the Palestinians more than Israel. But still we need to build trust,” Hayek said. “Then we can do other things with the Palestinians about bringing them to the table. You know, we are welcoming anyone to the table.”
Removing Barriers: Israeli officials went to Qatar to seek assurances that Israeli fans attending the World Cup in November will be able to receive consular assistance. Qatar, meanwhile, has asked Israel to facilitate travel for Palestinians who have tickets to the soccer matches.
Riyadh Vice: Vice Media, a youth-focused digital media company, is exploring a deal with MBC, a media company partly owned by the Saudi government, to start a Middle East content partnership, The New York Times reported.
No Check-out: Israel’s largest supermarket chain, Shufersal, opened its first checkout-free branch in Tel Aviv where cameras and sensors register customer purchases.
Going Electric: China’s NWTN electric vehicle manufacturer signed a lease with Abu Dhabi Port’s Khalifa Industrial Zone to build an assembly plant for its cars.
Gaming the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia is trying to establish itself as a world center for gaming, according to Prince Faisal bin Bandar, chairman of the Saudi Esports Federation, who said 63% of the country’s 34 million people are gamers.
Fortress for Sale: Mubadala Investment Co., the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, is close to a deal with Japan’s Softbank to buy U.S. investment bank Fortress Investment Group for about $2 billion.
Selling Elmo: Israel’s Elmo Motion Control is being acquired by Germany’s Bosch for $700 million in a sale managed by Rothschild & Co.
Book a Truck: Trukker, an Abu Dhabi-based company that automates booking and tracking trucks, raised $100 million in its latest funding round and is planning an IPO.
Send Help: Israel’s Carbyne, which sets up networked emergency contact centers, raised $56 million in a financing round that included former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Cultivating Ecommerce: Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Fund started a program to help small- and medium-sized businesses develop e-commerce platforms.
Smart Farming: Israel’s Taranis, which uses artificial intelligence to help farmers increase crop yield, raised $40 million in a financing round led by Inven Capital. Investors included Vertex Growth, Hitachi Ventures and OurCrowd.
On the Circuit
Mohamed Alabbar, the founder of Emaar Properties and builder of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, suggested that medical care and hospitals have become a bridge between Israel and the UAE.
Shari Arison, an Israeli billionaire and top shareholder in Bank Hapoalim, sold a 1.9% stake in the country’s biggest lender at a value of about $250 million and plans to sell more.
Ran Heistein has been named head of the new Tel Aviv office set up by Switzerland’s EFG Bank. Heistein previously ran HSBC Private Bank Suisse’s Israel office.
Ahead on the Circuit
Sept. 13, Jerusalem: Greentech. Gathering of leaders from government, industry, NGOs and academia to discuss environmental technologies. Ramada Hotel.
Sept. 14-15, New York: “Mind the Tech 2022” conference, sponsored by the Israeli-based Calcalist financial news site and Bank Leumi, brings Israeli tech industry leaders and investors to New York. Apella Alexandria conference center.
Sept. 28-29, Dubai: World Green Economy Summit. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority hosts environmental conference with the World Green Economy Organization. Dubai World Trade Centre.
Israeli Superhero: Israeli actress Shira Haas will play an Israeli superhero in Marvel’s next “Captain America” film. Haas, who gained international notice in the Netflix series “Unorthodox,” will appear as Sabra, a former agent for Israel’s Mossad spy agency, who first appeared in Marvel comics in 1980.
Netflix Brushback: The UAE government told Netflix to remove content from its streaming service that it said is inappropriate for children. It didn’t specify publicly what material was found objectionable.