Bright lights of Dubai beckon Israel’s Arabs but pose quandary

Occupied Jerusalem: For Israel’s Arab citizens, the normalisation deals that Israel struck with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will mean newfound freedom to stroll through Dubai’s cavernous malls, take lucrative jobs in Abu Dhabi, UAE, or solicit investments from wealthy Emiratis or Bahrainis.

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The prospects are dazzling. But some Arab citizens of Israel acknowledge misgivings about exploiting opportunities that could benefit them but undercut the Palestinian national cause.

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Sajy Khashab, 23, a graduate student in computer science, said he would love to travel to the Gulf, a frequent stop for the travel and food bloggers he follows. “There’s a very small list of Arab countries I can visit,” he said.

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But he was unwilling to seize the chance just yet. “I would want to first see that Palestinians in the West Bank at least are OK with this, are in agreement with this,” he said. “Then I would start to think about how I myself can benefit from it.”

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Until the signing of diplomatic agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain in Washington last month, the only Arab countries open to Israel’s 1.9 million Arab citizens were Egypt, a popular tourist destination, and Jordan, where thousands have attended college.

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For years, the skyscrapers of Dubai were omnipresent images in Arab television and social media but largely off-limits. Now some people feel an almost uncontrollable urge to see them in person.

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“It’s like an American who wants to go visit New York,” said Mohammed Darawshe, a leader of an Israeli group that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence. “It’s a hub and an icon of culture, and accomplishment, and achievement.”

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It is still impossible to fly directly to the Gulf on commercial airlines. But executives from a major meat company, coffee roaster and travel company were among the Arab executives who jumped at the chance to participate in junkets led by Israeli banks. Would-be middlemen from Arab areas of Israel have set up WhatsApp groups and even an office or two in the Gulf.

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And Diaa Sabia, 27, a midfielder on the Israeli national soccer team from the Arab city of Majd al Krum, was lured from a Chinese club to the Al Nasr team in Dubai. “They received us like kings,” he wrote on Instagram in Hebrew. “Words can’t describe it,” he wrote in Arabic.

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Experts say the biggest immediate economic opportunities in the Gulf for Arab citizens of Israel lie in attracting investments for startups and landing high-salaried jobs in the UAE in technology and investment banking.

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“Everybody’s seeing stars now,” said Ehab Farah, a Tel Aviv, Israel-based business lawyer who has advised Arab-owned startups in Israel. “A lot of entrepreneurs are saying, ‘We want a piece of the cake.’”

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Nora Nseir Manassa, a founder of Nurami Medical, a Haifa, Israel, startup making a surgical patch that relies on nanotechnology, said she belonged to several WhatsApp groups in which Arab entrepreneurs were talking “about how we can leverage this.”

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Nseir Manassa said she hoped to raise money in the UAE and use the Gulf as a gateway to previously closed-off countries. “This can open a new opportunity,” she said, “a new world that we are not aware of and a new market.”

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At a minimum, Arab-Israeli experts say they hope the availability of Gulf capital could help compensate for what they call a debilitating fact of life in Israel: difficulty in obtaining credit from mainstream financial institutions.

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Ziyad Abuo Habla, an Arab banking expert, said that Arabs in Israel felt as if they had the word “risky” tattooed across their foreheads and may be charged higher interest rates than Jews. But UAE banks, he said, would appreciate that an Arab borrower’s family would step in to help if he or she was unable to repay a loan.

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Further down the road, Farah said he could envision UAE investment in Arab startups in Israel changing the way those startups are seen domestically. If Jewish investors now primarily view them through a “corporate social responsibility” lens, he said, they might now decide to invest in Arab startups as a way to forge their own ties to the Gulf.

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Sami Miaari, a labour economist at Tel Aviv University, expressed caution about the chances that Arab Israeli businesses would be able to penetrate the Gulf marketplace, which he said was inordinately expensive. “They’ll be competing with giants in the field,” he said.

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Raja Khalidi, an economist at a Ramallah, West Bank-based research institute, said he doubted that Gulf Arabs would be interested in making deals with Arab Israelis, whose biggest businesses they would consider small potatoes.

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The prospects for Arab citizens on the job market could be far rosier.

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Arab Israelis graduating with degrees in information technology who might earn $3,000 to $5,000 a month in Israel could expect to command three to five times that in the UAE, he said.

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But the diplomatic deals that created these opportunities have been denounced by Palestinian leaders.

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Khashab, a master’s student at Tel Aviv University who also works for a major U.S. tech company, said the UAE labour market could vastly expand his horizons.

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In Israel, the startup ecosystem is dominated by entrepreneurs who met one another in the military, from which Arabs are exempt, he said. Many Arabs, as a result, gravitate to jobs with multinational tech companies, where they fit in more easily.

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UAE investment or job opportunities could be an equalizer, he said.

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Darawshe, however, said that Arab Israelis who see an opportunity in the Gulf would seize it, misgivings or not.

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“The first time an Arab debka group is invited, they’ll say no,” he said, referring to a popular Palestinian folk dance. “The second time, yes.”

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Jeries Nakhleh, export manager at El Nakhleh Coffee in Shfaram, Israel, who went on one of the first Israeli trade missions to the Gulf, said he was eager to make his first deal there.

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“I’m not like my father and grandfather,” he said. “I don’t forget about the Palestinian issue, but I don’t carry it with me everywhere I go.”

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