Dubai’s Ahmed Bin Sulayem reaches out to Tel Aviv
Dubai free-trade zone chief woos Israeli businesses to set up operations in UAE hub for diamonds, coffee, crypto and e-gaming
Ahmed Bin Sulayem, who runs diamond, gold and coffee exchanges in Dubai, has a hard time sitting still.
Courting business owners at a seminar in Tel Aviv last week, the 44-year-old CEO of the mammoth Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre repeatedly left his chair up front to take phone calls, visit the espresso bar, snap pictures, send WhatsApp messages, view YouTube videos, play e-games and work the lobby. He conveys the enthusiasm and frenetic air of a man who spends a great deal of time taste-testing the products at the global coffee center he established among the 22,000 businesses that operate at the DMCC, Dubai’s largest free-trade zone.
Decades before the Abraham Accords normalized diplomatic ties between the United Arab Emirates and Israel in 2020, Bin Sulayem regularly slipped into Tel Aviv to meet with traders at the Israel Diamond Exchange, discuss investments in tech startups and surf along the Mediterranean coast. Now he’s coaxing many of the friends he’s made on his trips to set up shop in Dubai and sell to neighboring Arab countries that were previously off-limits to Israelis.
“Israel’s just an amazing market to bounce ideas back and forth and connect with,” Bin Sulayem told The Circuit in an interview after leading the DMCC’s three-hour “Made for Trade Live” road show on Nov. 29 at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. “There are so many opportunities that have been uncovered.”
The DMCC, a city within a city made up of 87 office and residential towers with 100,000 people and a large artificial lake, has been promoting its services at similar events in 15 international cities this year, including New York, Miami, London and Paris, as well as in Barcelona, Spain, and Bogota, Colombia.
Besides being home to the Dubai Diamond Exchange, the Dubai Gold and Commodities Exchange and the DMCC Coffee Centre, Bin Sulayem has sought to make the free-trade zone a home for cryptocurrency and e-gaming businesses. The coffee operation, which has facilities for roasting, storage and exporting the commodity around the world, also features a school for baristas. Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange, established a regional office at DMCC, and Bin Sulayem says he’s friendly with CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, who has been living in the zone amid the crash of FTX, its biggest rival.
Like coffee, diamonds and crypto, Bin Sulayem said gaming “is one of the industries that’s close to my heart” and will play a key role in DMCC’s future growth. “I wasted so many hours as a kid” playing e-games, he said. “Now at least, I can say part of it was research.”
Bin Sulayem, who sports a trim beard and was dressed in an emerald green shirt under a sports jacket at the Tel Aviv event, cultivated an affection for the Los Angeles Lakers as a student at California State University in San Bernardino. His wealth and love of basketball were expressed in 2013, when he took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times paying tribute to NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, who died two years ago in a helicopter accident. Once he came back to the UAE, he went to work for his father, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chairman of DP World, the fifth-largest ports operator in the world, who put him in charge of the fledgling DMCC project at age 23.
Shortly afterward, he came to Israel to meet with leaders of the Israel Diamond Exchange and left with the expectation that a peace treaty was two years away. He was off by more than 20 years, but now relishes the ability to visit the country openly.
“Visiting Tel Aviv changed my life,” Bin Sulayem told the more than 200 Israelis whom he welcomed to the DMCC seminar. As a free-trade zone, there are no income taxes for any of the businesses in the DMCC, he explained. Even more important for Israelis, the companies in the DMCC remain wholly owned by the original owners, but are registered as Emirati companies and can therefore do business throughout the Gulf, including in Saudi Arabia, where they would otherwise be barred.
“When you domicile your company in the free zone, you become a UAE company,” Sanjeev Dutta, DMCC’s executive director for commodities and financial services, told the Tel Aviv audience. “For example, you are an Israeli company sending tea to Dubai, and you blend and repack it under your DMCC entity,” he said. “What happens is you say that the product is made in the UAE and then you can reexport those as a UAE company.”
Trade between the UAE and Israel reached $1.2 billion in 2021 and has already topped $1.4 billion this year after the two countries signed a free-trade agreement in May. At the time, Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Ahmed Al Zeyoudi predicted that trade will reach $5 billion within a few years.
As head of one of the 78 Israeli companies that operate in the DMCC, Adi Zamir uses Dubai as a home base for selling diamonds in Asia, cutting travel time to his primary market in India by three hours.
“Dubai is poised to become the center of the diamond trade,” Zamir told The Circuit by telephone from the UAE. “Moving here became possible because of the Abraham Accords, and it is the best way to grow my business.”
Nine months ago, Zamir, 51, packed up his business and moved with his wife and teenage daughters to the DMCC. As a second-generation dealer, he imports rough diamonds from Africa, and sells them in India and other Asian markets.
“When you want to build a serious operation, you need to know the mentality and to be local,” he said. “It’s impossible to create a new platform when you come and go every two weeks. It also means I don’t need to live on an airplane.”
Zamir said he is grateful to Bin Sulayem, whom he described as “incredibly passionate about the work that he and his team do” in helping Israelis set up operations in Dubai.
Zamir has spent much of the last 25 years flying between Israel, Africa, Belgium, Russia and South Africa. Now he travels less, as most of his clients in India are happy to come to Dubai. His daughters are in British schools and have made friends among fellow Israelis and from a range of other nationalities.
“We are enjoying life here,” he said. “It’s a bit expensive but Israel is not less expensive.”
He says the Israeli business community is growing.
“You just need to come and, yalla, you can start doing business,” he said.