UAE unlocks more of Gulf to Israeli companies, envoy says

Israelis can operate in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Muslim countries previously closed to them through partnerships with Emirati companies

Photo by Jonathan H. Ferziger

Jonathan H. Ferziger

Ambassador Amir Hayek in his Abu Dhabi office

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — A year after beginning his posting as Israel’s ambassador to the UAE, Amir Hayek has a new office, a track record for boosting trade and a view that the tiny Gulf country is an ideal perch for Israeli companies to do business throughout the Arab world.

“You would like to sell to the Saudi market, to the Qatari market, to the Indonesian market? You can do it easily,” Hayek told The Circuit in an interview last week at the Israeli Embassy’s sprawling new location inside an office tower in the UAE capital.

In order for Israelis to penetrate markets that are still closed to them, Hayek said, they must work with an Emirati partner, register as an Emirati company and establish an office or manufacturing site inside the country. “Why not? That’s the way of doing business today.”

Israel’s bilateral trade with the UAE was $1.6 billion in the first eight months of 2022 and is on track to reach $2.4 billion by the end of the year, double the volume of 2021. The two countries signed a free-trade agreement in May that Emirati officials said would bring annual commercial activity to $10 billion a year. That doesn’t include defense sales, which are not public, and reportedly growing at a swift pace.

The 58-year-old ambassador spoke days before Saudi Arabia hosts its sixth Future Investment Initiative conference, a gathering of 6,000 investors, business executives and government policymakers that is often referred to as “Davos in the Desert.” Israeli hopes that the kingdom might join the 2020 Abraham Accords that were signed by the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have receded, though some Israeli companies are reportedly operating in Saudi Arabia with third-country registrations.

Hayek’s advice to Israeli executives doing business there, however, is not to discuss it publicly. “As much as you’ll talk less, you’ll do better,” he said.

Hayek, who comes from a family of Iraqi immigrants to Israel and speaks fluent Arabic, previously held a series of senior positions in the Israeli government, including director-general of the Industry and Trade Ministry. He was also chief of the Israeli Export Institute, the Israel Manufacturers Association and the Israel Hotel Association.

The exact site of Israel’s sleek new diplomatic headquarters can’t be reported for security reasons. “It is a brand new embassy, completed in less than two years since signing the accords, that will accommodate the full team of one of the core foreign missions of Israel abroad,” spokeswoman Shifra Weiss-Kubany said.

Hayek describes a winnowing-out process since the initial enthusiasm that followed the normalization agreements and brought a torrent of Israeli executives fishing for opportunities in the UAE and nearby Bahrain.

“On day one, everybody came here and thought they could do business,” Hayek said. “But the Emiratis learned the Israelis and the Israelis learned the Emiratis. Those who would like to do business here need to come, look the Emiratis in the eyes, build trust and then build cooperation.”

What characterizes Emirati investors, he said, is that they don’t move quickly and are willing to spend whatever time and expense it takes to develop a deep understanding of potential partners. Their interests are “impact industries,” Hayek said, including renewable energy, water desalination, food tech, agrotechnology, transportation and healthcare.

“They will hardly invest in seed companies,” he said. “They are ready to pay even a little bit more, but to reduce the risk, and they would like to see proven sales.”