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ToI investigates

From bankruptcy to the Burj: The mysterious rise of Dubai macher Naum Koen

Ever since Israel and the United Arab Emirates normalized ties, the Israeli-Russian businessman has seized the spotlight. But who is he and how did he make his money?

Naum Koen in Israel on November 27, 2020. (Courtesy of Moshe Hogeg via JTA)
Naum Koen in Israel on November 27, 2020. (Courtesy of Moshe Hogeg via JTA)

It was supposed to be one of the first dividends of peace.

On December 7, one of Israel’s premier soccer teams, Beitar Jerusalem, announced with great fanfare that it had sold 50 percent of its shares to an Emirati businessman sheikh.

The sheikh, who now goes by Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, is one of the lesser-known members of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

But the broker in the deal was also a newcomer on the world stage. His name was Naum Koen, a Dubai-based Russian-Israeli businessman who introduced himself as the sheikh’s top adviser.

In a touching scene filmed by Israel’s Channel 12, the sheikh’s son, Muhammad, wearing a black-and-yellow Beitar scarf over his long white robe, turned to Koen and said, “I’d like to say thank you again to my big brother who opened the doors of peace and love and harmony between the two countries.”

“Thank you very much, your highness,” Koen said to the sheikh’s son. “As we say in Hebrew, mazal tov, mazal tov, mazal tov.”

“Mazal tov, mazal tov, mazal tov,” the sheikh’s son replied heartily, in Arabic-accented Hebrew, as the two men embraced.

Muhammad bin Hamed bin Khalifa (left), son of Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, embraces Naum Koen at the signing ceremony for the sale of half of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, December 7, 2020 (Channel 2 screenshot)

The Beitar Jerusalem sale was one of the most publicized business partnerships struck after Israel and the UAE signed a historic normalization agreement in August 2020. The sheikh promised to pump $90 million into the soccer club in the coming decade.

The deal was symbolic on many levels. Some of Beitar’s fans have become notorious for racist outbursts against Arabs, and the sale of half the team to an Emirati sheikh appeared to usher in a new era of tolerance and brotherhood. “We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together,” said the sheikh.

But on February 11 the deal fell through. Beitar withdrew its application for approval of the sale following an Israel Football Association probe into the sheikh’s finances.

Separate investigations by private intelligence firms hired by the soccer body reportedly alleged that Al Nahyan had overstated his personal wealth and that some of his money came from dealings in cryptocurrencies, which often raises red flags for regulators.

Moreover, several of the sheikh’s business associates were of questionable repute, the reports claimed. These included former FC Portsmouth owner Sulaiman al Fahim, who was sentenced to five years in an Emirati prison for forgery, as well as Cypriot Sendjer Shevket, who spent seven years in a UK jail for a fake movie loan scam. Al Nahyan had also partnered with Shevket’s alleged accomplice Yen Lung Chen, who was indicted in the United States but never apprehended and had the fraud charges against him dismissed in 2007.

Koen’s role in the sale and his past business dealings were not included in the probes, according to those parts that were leaked. However, an investigation by The Times of Israel reveals a checkered past for the middleman, including contradictory court affidavits about his wealth. Despite the scuttled Beitar deal, Koen remains a powerful and influential figure in the UAE’s Jewish and Israeli expat communities, reaping the fruits of normalization while brashly building up his own cachet, to the consternation of some.

Koen told The Times of Israel that he is the founder and main benefactor of the Jewish Community Center of the United Arab Emirates, which consists of a synagogue and other institutions. Led by Levi Duchman, the official Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in the United Arab Emirates, the JCC raised some hackles when it opened in June 2020 by openly flaunting its presence at a time when Dubai’s more established Jewish community was still keeping a low profile.

One of Koen’s companies, the NY Koen Group, has launched an initiative to supply kosher food in the UAE. Koen’s company has also announced a partnership with the Dubai-based Kiklabb, which helps entrepreneurs register companies in the Emirates. Koen’s website, Naumkoen.com, features photographs of him with notable business figures, politicians and celebrities, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, actor Steven Seagal, Israeli pop singer Omer Adam, construction mogul Raj Sahni and convicted felons-turned-celebrities Ilan Fernandez and Jacob Arabo.

Naum Koen (right) with Israeli supermarket mogul Rami Levy in Dubai, January 13, 2021 (Twitter screenshot)

Members of the UAE Jewish community were extremely skittish about speaking to The Times of Israel about Koen, to the point where most declined to be quoted even anonymously.

Some of them see Koen as an ostentatious individual with an outsized media and social media presence at odds with the more modest sensibilities of the UAE Jewish community.

Several people told The Times of Israel that the Emirati Jewish community consists largely of members of the professional-managerial class, people who tend to have degrees from elite universities and would be embarrassed to show off their wealth by wearing a Rolex or driving a Lamborghini. One person described the community as similar to that of Ra’anana, an upper-middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv with a large population of family-oriented meritocrats.

One source questioned The Times of Israel’s decision to profile Koen, suggesting that such a write-up would distract readers from all the wonderful and legitimate business deals and collaborations taking place between Israelis and Emiratis.

Koen, for his part, has not been shy about speaking to the media or flaunting his self-professed wealth and business activities. In a 50-minute television feature on Israel’s Channel 12 earlier this year, he wore what he described as a $2.5 million emerald-and-ruby studded watch, drove an $825,000 Rolls Royce and spoke of living in a $12 million Dubai mansion.

“I always dreamed of [great wealth],” he told the interviewer.

Koen, top left, speaking to an Israeli reporter from the balcony of his Dubai mansion in 2020. (screen capture: Channel 12)

But much about Koen remains a mystery. Just five years ago Koen told an Israeli court he could not attend his own bankruptcy proceedings because he was working off a debt of less than NIS 900,000 ($272,800) to his Russian employer.

“The debtor has not returned to Israel,” Koen’s attorney wrote, referring to her client. “His employer, who paid a large portion of [his debts], will not let him return to Israel until he finishes paying off his debt through work.”

One thing is clear: Koen’s own story and the story told about him in Israeli court documents can’t both be true. But if he is not the wealthy self-made businessman he claims to be, who is he? And where does the money that paid for his house, his watch and his philanthropic donations come from?

From Nahshon to Naum

Prior to 2013, Naum Koen had an entirely different name. He was known as Nahshon Nahshonov.

Koen’s spokesperson at the time, Asher Gold, told The Times of Israel in December that Koen uses a different name in the Emirates because he found locals had difficulty pronouncing Nahshonov, so “he decided to use Koen as his last name due to his family origins of the Jewish priestly caste known as Kohanim (a plural of Kohen or Koen).”

Koen was born in 1981 in Dagestan, then part of the USSR and now Russia, and immigrated to Israel with his parents and four siblings in 1994.

In a 2017 lawsuit, his parents Yaakov and Ludmila, a factory worker and a housecleaner, claimed to be estranged from three of their five children. They claimed that Nahshon had left their home in 2003 and they had no idea where he was.

“[Nahshon] lived in the apartment with us until 2003 when he left the apartment with all his belongings for an unknown destination and as far as we know he currently lives abroad,” his parents wrote in their October 2017 affidavit.

Koen told The Times of Israel that he is on good terms with his parents, but that their characterization is otherwise accurate: that he had left Israel in 2003 to seek his fortune in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere.

Flight records show him being outside of the country in 2005-2009, for most of 2011, and then to have left the country for good in September 2013.

“Since 2003, I’ve mostly lived abroad,” he said, “but I visit Israel a lot.”

An opportunity in Russia

In February 2012, Koen filed for bankruptcy in Israel. In the filings, he said he had debts of about NIS 700,000 ($209,700) that he could not pay. These included debts to municipalities, to credit card companies, and to extra-bank lenders, as well as an unpaid personal loan from Itzhak Maman, owner of the Red Sea Hotel in Eilat.

In the filings, Koen described his profession as “driver” and declared his salary to be NIS 4,000 (about $1,000) a month.

But some time in 2013, Koen had a sudden change of fortune. He told the court in August 2013 that he had been offered a job in Russia.

“I have received a job offer that matches my skills,” he said in a court filing. “I’ve been offered a job in marketing and sales for a business in Russia.”

Koen paid back nearly all of his debt and left Israel in late 2013. The bankruptcy proceedings continued and Koen continued to be summoned for hearings, but did not attend.

In this March 2013 photo, the professedly bankrupt Koen was honored by the Israeli B’lev Echad charity for disabled children for being a major donor (B’lev Echad press release)

In May 2015, his lawyer acknowledged that he had failed to show up for court hearings as promised but explained that Koen’s employer in Russia would not let him return to Israel because the employer had covered the cost of his debts, and Koen now had to work to pay him back.

“The debtor’s employer, who paid part of the money he owed his creditors so that he could leave Israel, will not allow the debtor to return to Israel until he repays his debt through work,” Koen’s lawyer wrote in a court filing.

Koen claimed the bankruptcy court document had been misinterpreted and he was not deeply in debt.

“The document said I had an obligation to my partner,” Koen told The Times of Israel, referring to his former employer as his partner, “not a debt. I had commitments to my partner.”

Koen refused to divulge the name of the partner. “I cannot speak about this and don’t want to speak about this,” he said. He later added that “my Russian ex-partner likes to keep a low profile.”

International man of mystery

In August 2013, a Cyprus-based businessman named David Khabie bought 600,000 euros worth of vodka and whiskey from a man named Nahshon Nahshonov, according to court filings in a different case.  The invoice Nahshonov allegedly provided to Khabie, a copy of which is included in court filings, had a link to Nahshonov’s personal website. This website featured a biography that was completely at odds with the information Koen/Nahshonov provided to the Israeli bankruptcy court.

An invoice that Nahshonov allegedly gave to a businessman named David Khabie as it appeared in a court filing (Source: Israeli court case 12254-05-19)

According to an archived version of the website, Koen came from wealth.

“Nahshon Nahshonov was born in Derbent, USSR in 1981, to a successful family,” the website read. “Nahshonov took after his father Jacob Nahshonov who is also a very successful businessman.”

The website also featured a press release from May 2013, in the midst of his bankruptcy proceedings, that claimed he had a net worth of $581 million.

“Nahshon Nahshonov, a remarkable individual who’s intensively involved with charity work, has recently decided to channel some of his fortune to groups of needy individuals that are sadly not given as much care as they should be. Being a young Jewish man from Russia, Nahshonov has compassion and understanding towards this specific group of people, WWII veterans in Eastern Europe. It is almost impossible to imagine the hardships these individuals have gone through and Nahshonov has made their recent Easter a bit better by donating $1,350,000 via his company Isra Diamond International,” the press release said.

When The Times of Israel asked Koen about this website, he said that it was not his and that he had no idea who was writing untrue, albeit highly flattering, things about him.

“Who would write such things? I don’t know,” he said. “That website has nothing to do with me.”

Koen in Ukraine

By October 2013, while presumably working for his Russian employer, Nahshonov began registering companies under his new name, Naum Koen, in Ukraine. Among the more than a dozen companies he registered were firms involved in the construction, aviation, hotels, diamonds and internet marketing industries. Around this time, he also recorded popular music in the “Russian chanson” tradition.

By February 2016, Koen began registering companies in Dubai as well. These included Daniel MS, a diamond firm; Time to Nova; an internet marketing firm; and Gemgow, an online platform for the trade of precious stones. In 2017 he registered Jeni Coin, a jewelry design company, and Amber Palm, a company that markets high-end amber tiles for interior decoration. While Koen is the director of all these companies, the identity of their ultimate beneficial owner is not public information.

An October 2018 profile on a Ukrainian news site described Koen as presiding over a “global business empire,” in places as diverse as the UAE, India, Qatar, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, the US and Hong Kong.

The article listed a number of Koen’s business partners, including Russian diamond giant Alrosa; Indian vaccine magnate Cyrus Poonawalla; luxury jeweler Jacob & Co, founded by Jacob Arabo, whose photograph with Koen appears on Koen’s website; Baku-based private jet charter Silk Way Business Aviation; SOBHA Group, an Emirates real estate firm that has begun marketing to Israelis; the Al-Arfaj Group, a Kuwait holding company; and Ukraine’s Viaan Mobile Group.

In October 2019, a press release announced that Canadian-Russian businessman Boris Birshtein was an investor in Gemgow.

Birshtein is a prominent businessman whose son-in-law, Alex Shnaider, financed the Trump Tower Toronto. Birshtein was described by Switzerland’s counterintelligence service in 2007 as having ties to both the Russian mafia and the KGB. In multiple media accounts, Birshtein has denied any such ties.

Koen’s holding company announced Gemgow’s partnership with Birshtein via Instagram, November 12, 2019 (Instagram screenshot)

Koen confirmed that Birshtein is indeed one of the company’s investors. He said that Birshtein is not his Russian employer, but refused to divulge the identity of that employer.

The Times of Israel contacted Birshtein asking him to confirm or deny that he had invested in Gemgow, but did not hear back prior to publication.

Today, the website of the Koen Group features a diverse range of companies under Koen’s control offering everything from private aviation and jewels to cellphone cases, real estate and medical equipment. All of the companies list the same addresses in Dubai and Kyiv and nearly identical phone numbers.

The company websites make heavy use of stock photos and some literature is riddled with mistakes in English, including using Koen and Cohen interchangeably at times. “Nobody wants to be victim of fraud [sic],” a site for Koen Security pitches.

Asked how he became such a successful businessman so quickly after having been in debt, Koen replied, “We all have ups and downs.”

“Thank God (and some Bitcoin), my business is doing well,” he added.

Leader or outlier?

There are at least three Jewish congregations in Dubai, egalitarian, Modern Orthodox and Hasidic-Orthodox. The latter group is headed by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Levi Duchman along with businessman Solly Wolf.

Wolf told The Times of Israel that Koen is the founder and main benefactor of the Hasidic congregation, also known as the Jewish Community Center, which he said was founded two years ago.

Rabbi Levi Duchman, left, an unidentified Chabad member, center, and Solly Wolf at the White House Abraham Accords ceremony on September 15, 2020 (courtesy)

The Times of Israel asked Rabbi Levi Duchman whether Koen was in fact the JCC’s founder and main benefactor. Duchman did not address the question of Koen specifically, but said that the community had multiple founders and funders.

“We weren’t founded by benefactors,” he said. “Rather the JCC was formed as a community of Jews coming together to enrich Jewish life and practice here in the UAE. We’re grateful that our support is reflective of that, in that it comes from a broad base of those in our community.”

Some members of the Dubai Jewish community first recall becoming aware of Koen in March 2019 when he funded a festive Purim dinner at the Burj Al Arab Hotel. The dinner had been unusual, because much of the UAE Jewish community, which numbers several hundred, had been trying to keep a low profile at the time.

A general view of Dubai is shown from the Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, November 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell/File)

Some individuals in Dubai’s Jewish community said that the Jewish Community Center, which is less established than the Jewish Council of the Emirates, a community that has been around for a decade, has gotten a lot of attention by courting publicity and posting robustly on social media. This has created a discrepancy between Koen’s media presence, they said, and his actual prominence within the Jewish community.

Wikipedia pages for the JCC, Koen and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, who previously went by the name Adel al-Otaiba, were all published by and are heavily policed by a user named Shemtovca, who appears to be Oleksandr Nathan Bomshteyn, a Toronto-based consultant who does web marketing, SEO and reputation management.

Koen’s article was created on May 19, 2019. The JCC article was created in July 2020, and the Wikipedia article about the sheikh was created on December 3, 2020, a few days before the Beitar deal was signed.

Wikipedia’s rules generally forbid paid-for page editing. Bomshteyn did not respond to requests from the Times of Israel to comment.

Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef with Koen in the United Arab Emirates, in a photo posted January 29, 2021. (Facebook screenshot)

Wolf highlighted Koen’s charitable giving and said there was no reason to look into where his wealth came from.

“Koen is a philanthropist. He has given millions of dollars to Jewish communities around the world,” Wolf said. “He is a very successful businessman with 13 different companies around the globe. The question of how he made his money is absurd.”

Koen himself told The Times of Israel that he was unhappy with the way many media outlets had portrayed him.

“You [the media] only want to write bad things about me? Why? What did I do?” he asked.

“We all have times in our life we would rather forget and times and achievements we want to remember,” he said. “But instead of focusing on me, I am looking forward to when journalists and publications like yours will devote more time and effort to doing profiles on charities. And focus on helping those less fortunate in the society.”

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