Israeli entrepreneur looks to sell electric trucks in Saudi Arabia
Asher Bennett, brother of the former prime minister, joins growing stream of Israeli entrepreneurs seeking business in the kingdom that still resists diplomatic ties
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — It sounds counterintuitive, even like the start of a gag: an Israeli tech entrepreneur comes to an Arab desert kingdom that is the largest oil producer in the Middle East, and whose entire economy runs on crude, and he’s hawking zero-emission e-trucks.
But Asher Bennett, the brother of former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the founder of the London-based e-truck maker Tevva Motors, may be looking down the road clear-eyed and he may just have the right vehicle, and the right technology, at the right time. Even Saudi Arabia is setting new environmental standards to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
“There’s a lot of interest in the Gulf for our technologies, so I’m here from time to time,” Bennett told The Circuit on the second day of the Future Investment Initiative conference, often called “Davos in the Desert” because it’s patterned after the annual World Economic Forum event in Davos, Switzerland. “I was invited here last year and it was an eye-opener,” he said in an interview at the King Abdulaziz Convention Center, the site of the conference here in the Saudi capital.
Israeli companies are increasingly being allowed to operate in the Saudi kingdom despite the fact that it has not joined the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Like Bennett, who has American parents, many Israelis are dual citizens and face few restrictions on entering the country. In other cases, Saudi officials have granted special visas to admit Israelis, particularly tech executives, without a second nationality.
At least four Israelis were invited to speak at this week’s conference, including Samer Haj Yehia, chairman of Bank Leumi and an Arab citizen of Israel; and U.S.-born Jonathan Medved, founder and CEO of the venture capital investing platform OurCrowd.
The new unofficial policy toward Israelis reflects the drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently appointed prime minister, to overhaul the country’s economy and wean it off dependence on oil. Known as MBS, the prince has in the past expressed admiration for Israel’s tech industry and said he sees Israel as a “potential ally.” Still, the country adheres to the Arab League position of not establishing official ties with Israel until its conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
Bennett, 53, said he developed an interest in e-vehicles through his service as a naval officer on an Israeli submarine, which was propelled by batteries attached to a large electric motor. Unlike other successful Israeli companies such as Mobileye, the maker of sophisticated navigation systems and software for self-driving cars that was bought by Intel for $15 billion, Tevva builds vehicles, he said.
“I’m the Israeli tech entrepreneur who figured out the one business step that we’re not good at in Israel and that’s automotive, the hardware side,” he said. “We don’t build cars in Israel, we don’t teach the engineering side in Israel, so I moved to the U.K.”
Tevva, which developed a dual-motor system that includes a hydrogen fuel cell to extend the vehicle’s range, produced a small fleet of trucks for the UPS package delivery service in London. “The average car drives one to two hours a day where the average truck goes out for eight, nine or 10 hours a day,” Bennett said. “Batteries alone don’t do it, so we mix batteries with hydrogen fuel cells. We can go much farther but also make it more economical.”
Tevva, which means nature in Hebrew, has raised more than $90 million in investment, including a $57 million funding round that closed in November 2021. Bennett declined to disclose the total amount. He said investors come from Europe, the U.S., India and the Gulf.