Gaza Projects, Israeli Defense Deals and Young Millionaires: Meet the UAE's Movers and Shakers

Normalization triggered a wave of new partnerships between Israeli and Gulf firms, but more than a few Emirati economic leaders have Israel ties that predate the deal

Liat Levi
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Sunlight reflects off the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, during a rain shower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Sunlight reflects off the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, during a rain shower in Dubai, United Arab EmiratesCredit: Jon Gambrell/AP
Liat Levi

The Instagram account of Ahmed bin Sulayem, executive chairman of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, during his visit to Israel last month proved just how much Israelis consider him a key to opening the Gulf to entire Israeli industries. His trip here, during which he was photographed in the company of both political and business leaders, was another sign of the source of his power – his international social ties.

The image that drew the most attention in Israel was a photograph with Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son. In text accompanying the picture, Sulayem thanked Ampa Capital and Israel Shipyards co-owner Shlomi Fogel for introducing him to Benjamin Netanyahu’s two sons. “My old friend,” he called Fogel, who is currently advancing a port venture with the United Arab Emirates’ leading company in the industry, owned by Sulayem’s father, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem.

Sulayem didn’t just meet the prime minister’s sons. The Instagram account of Israeli-American diamond merchant Eli Izhakoff featured a photo of Izhakoff and Sulayem with the prime minister himself. Izhakoff, an old friend of Netanyahu, has long had ties with businesspeople in the Gulf, and is a regular visitor there.

Sulayem has referred to Izhakoff as a mentor and credits him with helping found Dubai’s diamond exchange 20 years ago. Also while in Israel, Sulayem was photographed with one of Netanyahu’s lawyers, Amit Hadad. He also met the CEO of Discount Bank and with Moshe Leviev, the brother of the diamond magnate Lev Leviev, and visited his Bnei Brak home.

Well before the normalization agreement was signed, Sulayem visited Israel in February for an event hosted by the Israel Diamond Exchange, and met with a string of Israeli movers and shakers then, too. The exchange was the first company to sign a cooperation agreement with a UAE company – in this case the Dubai Diamond Exchange.

The Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, which has 18,000 member companies, was founded by the Dubai government in 2002 to ease the entrance of foreign firms into the UAE. Physically, the center is massive, with office buildings, homes and factories. Along with lower taxes, the center offers regulatory aid to companies seeking to expand into the Middle East, particularly the UAE. It includes major multinational companies such as PepsiCo and Colgate-Palmolive. Sulayem is credited with the center’s success – he travels the world, networking with global economic leaders, making him one of the best-connected people in the UAE.

Sulayem’s father, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, is one of the UAE’s wealthiest businessmen. He is chairman and chief executive of the ports and logistics giant DP World, which generated revenues of $5.6 billion in 2018.

The elder Sulayem is also planning projects with Israeli companies; he and Fogel plan to submit a bid via their companies DP World and Israel Shipyards in the privatization of Haifa Port.

Mohamed Alabbar is one of the most famous and wealthy businessmen in the UAE and around the world. He owns the Emaar Properties real estate empire, which is responsible for some of the most prestigious real estate projects in the UAE and the Gulf: the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building; Dubai Mall; and significant parts of Dubai and Bahrain’s airports. It also boasts luxury housing projects in countries including India, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey. In 2019 Emaar was ranked 20th on Forbes’ list of best-regarded companies, just after giants such as Visa and Microsoft and ahead of the likes of Nintendo and Samsung.

Alabbar also has businesses in other industries: His company Alabbar Enterprises controls Middle East franchises of U.S. restaurant chains such as Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and he founded Amazon competitor, which received some $1 billion in financing from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, according to Reuters.

Alabbar is also considered a major fashion player in the Arab world: He and his daughter founded Symphony, Dubai’s first exclusive designer boutique, which boasts top international brands such as Gucci – housed in Dubai Mall. He also partnered with Giorgio Armani in building two hotels bearing the Italian designer’s name – in Dubai and Milan.

Alabbar’s children Rashid and Salama followed their father into business. In 2014 they founded the casual-fashion website SIVVI, which offers three-hour deliveries in Dubai and features local brands as well as mid-level international fashion labels such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. Salama Alabbar is credited with introducing the Arab world to international design by focusing on fashions that suited the UAE’s conservative style, and in 2017 the Arabic magazine Flair named her one of the top-seven influential Arab women, alongside Queen Rania of Jordan and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney.

“I think we all live on a very small planet called Earth and we have a duty to the families. We have a duty to society we live in, we have a duty to our neighbors and to the world …. No matter how small these steps are we should something. And we as businessmen have a duty to our society, not only to make money and try to avoid taxes, but I really think we should do something good for the people,” Alabbar told Haaretz’s Noa Landau at the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain in 2019.

Back in 2005, a few months before Israel withdrew its settlers from the Gaza Strip, Alabbar visited Israel for a secret meeting with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, coordinated by Ephraim Sneh, a former transportation minister under Sharon. Sneh had met Alabbar in 2001 and was the first Israeli minister to make a secret but official visit to the UAE.

As Sneh recalls, “When we were planning to evacuate the settlements in Gaza, Alabbar had a proposal: Buy the homes in Gush Katif [the Gaza settlements] from the Israeli government and use them as part of the UAE’s development projects in Gaza, instead of destroying them. I was behind his visit to Israel and I brought him to meet Sharon and Shimon Peres, who was then minister for regional development. Arik [Sharon] was ready to sell the evacuated homes to the UAE, but others convinced him to destroy them.”

Sneh refers to Alabbar as “my good friend” and says the two have maintained ties over the years.

Ilan Cohen, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Sharon at the time, says that “Alabbar proposed an economic development master plan for Gaza that included tourism, infrastructure, everything. He said he’d bring in the money from the Arab world. To this day it drives me crazy to think that if we had had two years to work with someone like him, Gaza would look totally different today.”

The government-owned Mubadala Investment Company is the second largest fund of its kind in Abu Dhabi. Its management board includes some of Abu Dhabi’s top royals including Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the emirate’s crown prince and the UAE’s de facto ruler; and his brother, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE deputy prime minister. The company reported profits of $53 million in 2019. It says it has investments in firms in 50 countries, including $2.25 billion it invested this year in Google’s self-driving-car venture, Waymo, and $4.68 billion it paid this year for a 39% stake in European chemical company Borealis.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the company Group 42 was founded in August, registered under the address of the Yigal Arnon law firm in Jerusalem. The company was founded as a fully-owned subsidiary of an Abu Dhabi firm bearing the same name, and it has two board members: Guy Harmelin, an Israeli doctor and investor, and Martin Lee Edelman, a New York-based businessman.

Edelman is also a board member of the Abu Dhabi-traded real estate company Eldar, and an adviser to Mubadala. The Israeli Group 42 is believed to have direct connections to Abu Dhabi’s royal family, a perception bolstered by Edelman’s connections to government companies in Abu Dhabi.

A month before the Israeli subsidiary was founded, the Abu Dhabi-based parent company, which specializes in fields such as artificial intelligence, signed a cooperation agreement with an Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary, Elta, to “cover research and development of solutions that may help fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” the companies said in a press release. Elta specializes in areas such as sensors, electronic warfare and communications. The two companies say they plan to do research in artificial intelligence, sensors and lasers.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan inspects a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony in Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 12, 2013.Credit: Lai Seng Sin / AP

Group 42, IAI and another Israeli company, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, intended to do research to diagnose the coronavirus using light, sources told TheMarker, though that project has stalled.

The Abu Dhabi parent Group 42, led by CEO Peng Xiao, has raised its share of questions in the international media, mainly concerning the company’s owners and the nature of its operations. The New York Times, AP and The Washington Post have reported that the company is probably led by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser and the brother of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, the chairman of the Mubadala fund.

The New York Times reported last year that video and voice calling app ToTok, which has ties to Group 42, is actually an espionage app that lets the UAE track the conversations and movements of its users. The Times added that UAE cybercompany DarkMatter, which is being investigated by the FBI, indirectly controls Group 42 and is an arm of the Abu Dhabi regime. That firm is said to employ former CIA members and Israeli intelligence officials, and it has reportedly hacked into the gear of Iranian ministries, the world soccer body FIFA, journalists and dissidents. In an interview with AP, ToTok’s chief executive denied any connection to the UAE cybercompany.

So what is Group 42 seeking in Israel, and why is it partnering with a defense firm? A source at an Israeli defense firm says the Defense Ministry apparently approved the Elta partnership.

Group 42 Israel declined to comment on who is behind the company or on its Israel operations. It also declined to address the investigations into Group 42 around the world. The Yigal Arnon law firm responded: “We don’t address our clients’ business in the media.”

The IAI said that it is a partner in the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic and that the Group 42 partnership is part of this work. “The relationship with the company meets the accepted rules regarding the IAI’s operations,” it said.

The young millionaires

In 2012, Dany Farha, a UAE-based entrepreneur of Lebanese descent, founded the venture capital fund BECO Capital with his cousin. It’s one of the region’s few VC funds that invests in early-stage startups – a model familiar in Israel – and has invested in over 20 young technology companies.

One of its largest investments was the $15 million that went into UAE delivery company Fetchr, which enables residents of the Gulf, where street addresses are often vague or nonexistent, to receive delivers from around the world via their GPS location and a special app.

Fetchr was founded in 2012 by Idriss Al Rifai and Joy Ajlouny, both of whom have since left the company. Rifai was born in Iraq to a French mother and raised in France; Ajlouny was born in the United States to Palestinian refugees. Ajlouny is known as the “startup queen” and is one of the Arab world’s top women in the technology sector. She has raised more than $100 million for her various projects, including two startups that she founded.

Joy Ajlouny.Credit: Screenshot/Facebook

Ajlouny left Fetchr last year to focus on investing and advising early-stage startups. She repeatedly makes the most influential lists of Arab economic newspapers, and has been called the Middle East’s top female investor. She often speaks about integrating women into the tech sector and the challenges they face in the male-dominated industry.

To date, BECO Capital has had four exits. Its most famous was the sale of Careem, the Middle East's largest transport platform, to Uber in 2019 at a $3.1 billion valuation ­— the highest price ever paid for a company from the Gulf. Careem was founded by American-Pakistani Mudassir Sheikha and Swedish native Magnus Olsson, who met while working at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Careem is Dubai's most popular taxi app, and it currently operates in 100 cities and works with 1 million drivers in countries in places including the Palestinian Authority, Baghdad and Kurdistan.

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