Arriving in UAE, Israeli envoy sets sights on budding trade bonanza

Ambassador Eitan Na’eh, speaking from quarantine in Abu Dhabi, says he’ll focus on bringing cheaper goods to Israel, with stickier diplomatic issues not on his agenda yet

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Eitan Na'eh, Israel's first ambassador to the UAE, after arriving there on January 24, 2021. (Foreign Ministry, courtesy)
Eitan Na'eh, Israel's first ambassador to the UAE, after arriving there on January 24, 2021. (Foreign Ministry, courtesy)

Days after arriving in the United Arab Emirates, Israel’s first-ever ambassador to the Gulf nation said he was set to focus on economic issues, while apparently steering clear of the stickier issues that could weigh down the highly touted bilateral relationship.

Eitan Na’eh told The Times of Israel he saw a bright — and cheaper — future ahead for Israelis as ties develop.

“The UAE is an opening to a huge market, huge ports, with very big free trade zones,” said Na’eh, speaking by phone from Abu Dhabi, where he was quarantining. “There are huge advantages for Israeli trade, be it imports and also exports, for lowering the cost of living.”

In 2020, CEOWORLD magazine found that Israel was the eighth-most expensive country to live in.

Container ships dock at the Dubai Port in the Jebel Ali Free Zone, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

While Israelis have long maintained quiet commercial and security ties with the UAE, the normalization agreement has been touted as a potential economic boon, with increased access to the global business and shipping hub of Dubai, on top of tourism and energy.

“Everything that arrives here simply lowers the cost of living and every citizen of Israel will feel the impact of it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in October, while standing on a ship bringing washing machines from Dubai to Haifa.

Na’eh, 57, arrived in the UAE on Sunday and due to health restrictions is being kept in isolation for the time being, meaning he has yet to present his credentials or really be able to get down to work with his Emirati counterparts. He and the other Israelis staffing the mission in the UAE were vaccinated against the coronavirus before they flew.

“We have to be modest,” he said. “There is much for us to learn here… Anybody who has visited can see that they’re doing well. There is much to learn from what has been done here about how to do things, and how to do it well.”

Israel and the UAE signed a US-brokered normalization agreement at the White House on September 15, 2021. The move has been followed by agreements to work toward normalization with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Na’eh is the first Israeli ambassador to take up a post from any of the agreements, though a chargé d’affaires in Bahrain, Itai Tigray, is already at work in the capital city Manama.

From left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani stand on the Blue Room Balcony during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

His arrival coincides with a renewed Israeli push against plans by new US President Joe Biden to re-enter the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran. Jerusalem sees the UAE and other Gulf states as important allies in its simmering campaign against Iran’s nuclear program.

However, Na’eh said the Iranian threat was not on his radar.

“It’s an early stage and I’m concentrating wholly on developing the bilaterals at the moment,” he said.

He added that he was not sure he was the right person to talk to about Iran, a possible nod to Netanyahu’s attempts to control dialogue on Iran from the Prime Minister’s Office and not the Foreign Ministry.

Na’eh also said that he has not yet begun to delve into the more complicated issues he is expected to broach with the Emiratis, including relations with the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s policy toward Hamas-run Gaza.

In exchange for official ties with the UAE, Israel agreed to suspend plans to annex large parts of the West Bank under the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan drawn up by the administration of former US president Donald Trump. The move opened a rift between Abu Dhabi and Ramallah, which saw normalization with Israel as premature given the lack of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, though the UAE says it is still committed to the Palestinian cause.

Na’eh served as envoy to Turkey from 2016 to 2018, until he was expelled by Ankara in protest of the deaths of dozens of Palestinians in violent clashes with Israeli forces on the border with the Gaza Strip.

During his departure, he was forced to undergo an intensive security check as invited Turkish news cameras filmed, underlining the squabbles between Israel and Turkey he oversaw from Ankara.

The UAE, in contrast, is expected to be a much sunnier posting, with ties already burgeoning.

The focus right now is on the economic ties, said Na’eh, but the two countries will work together in a range of fields. “They would like to cooperate on as many areas as possible, be it agriculture, food security, medicine, telemedicine, early-stage innovation, R&D.”

He said Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s goals for the relationship were both “wide and specific.”

“Get to know the place,” he says he was told. “Get to know the issues. Map the issues. Map those individuals we need to be in touch with, then go and meet them. Enhance, increase cooperation in all possible areas …Develop the dialogue on all levels.”

Erel Margalit, founder and chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), visits with members of Israeli high-tech delegation to the Dubai Financial Market (DFM) on October 27, 2020. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)

Na’eh and the Foreign Ministry staff with him are establishing the beachhead on which diplomats will expand in the coming weeks. The ministry will eventually open a “fairly large” permanent embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai.

“We are the feet on the ground in terms of learning, exploring, and integrating,” Na’eh explained. “We are preparing the ground. It will happen very quickly.”

Though much preparation was done on Zoom and Skype amid the COVID-19 pandemic, having seasoned diplomats on the ground is crucial for the relationship to develop, stressed Na’eh. “There’s a limit to what you can achieve when you’re not sitting face-to-face, eye-to-eye with a person.”

Na’eh, who speaks English and Arabic, pointed at the ministry’s digital diplomacy work in the Arab world to lay the groundwork for the accords.

Many Israelis from the government and private sector will play important roles in developing the ties, but the Foreign Ministry is uniquely positioned and qualified to lead the effort, according to Na’eh.

Emirati and Israeli officials discuss future cooperation agreements in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

“I think due to its diverse experience, the Foreign Ministry is the right place… This is not work that one person or one government ministry can do. Obviously, we need to lead the efforts of many government agencies,” he said.

He called the appointment “the most exciting” opportunity in his career.

“It is a milestone,” he said.  “Only on the plane was I able to fully appreciate what has happened in the last few months. The landing, the reception, driving through Dubai and Abu Dhabi makes one realize what there is to be done — and, you know, a bit of humility for sure.”

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