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Snapshot from an emirate

‘Ma koreh?’ Dubaians cheerfully pick up Hebrew as Israelis see what’s up in UAE

At the mall, Rafi and Nissim sip coffee and shop, while a Syria-born salesman at Sephora initially flinches but then decides his Israeli customers are in fact very nice

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Rafi Revach (left) and Nissim Arush, two Israelis from Dimona visiting the Dubai Mall, December 9, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
Rafi Revach (left) and Nissim Arush, two Israelis from Dimona visiting the Dubai Mall, December 9, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rafi Revach and Nissim Arush were sitting at a café in the mall, shopping bags at their feet, happily chatting in Hebrew. Nothing unusual about this, except for the fact that their location was The Dubai Mall in the United Arab Emirates — a destination Israelis have been flocking to, as the normalization of ties between the countries has sparked a buzz of activity.

“We are here to find out about possibilities of bringing Israel Chemicals employees here on vacation,” Revach said, grinning. Israel Chemicals Ltd. is a chemicals and fertilizer maker in Israel.

Revach and Arush, both from the southern Israeli town of Dimona, are part of the company’s labor union, they said, and were visiting Dubai for four days to scout out its potential for holiday trips.

Dubai is proving to be a big draw for their compatriots. “There are lots of Israelis here, it’s bursting,” one said, listing a delegation of municipality heads as well as Likud party member visiting at the same time.

The two men had bought shoes and presents for their kids. “It is more expensive here than in Israel,” said Revach. “We paid 144 dirhams ($39.21) just for two coffees and two sodas.”

An Israeli passenger from a Flydubai flight from Tel Aviv waves his Israeli passport on arrival at Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, November 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

The Abraham Accords, which normalized the ties between Israel and the UAE and were signed in September, opened up new vacation and business opportunities as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down most other travel plans.

Some 5,000 Israelis visited Dubai in November and, based on ticket reservations, some 50,000 are expected to visit the most populous city in the UAE in December, said Tunisia-born Aymen Baccouche, who’s director of sales for the Middle East, Africa and India for the five-star Atlantis resort hotel.

The hotel boasts two underwater suites, and its $27,000-a-night, 1,000-square-meter royal suite has hosted Jennifer Lopez and Kim Kardashian. Forty-eight of the hotel’s 1,548 rooms are currently occupied by Israelis, he said, with Israel his newest, and already his third-largest, market, the largest being the UK.

The Atlantis hotel in The Palm, Dubai, December 9,  2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/The Times of Israel)

Speaking with Israeli journalists who ate dinner at his hotel, Baccouche asked to learn some Hebrew words and inquired into Hanukkah traditions. Why are doughnuts eaten on this festival, he wanted to know.

Some 1,000 Israelis, including visitors and exhibitors, attended the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (Gitex) Technology Week, one of the world’s largest annual tech summits, this week in Dubai, said Trixie LohMirmand, the executive VP of Events Management, in a brief interview with The Times of Israel.

It was the first time Israelis had participated in the conference, a development that followed the normalization deal.

“It is a momentous occasion,” LohMirmand said. There is “tremendous will” from all parties to engage, she added, and the fresh diplomatic ties will herald a “great era of new partnerships.”

The event was significantly smaller than in previous years due to the pandemic, but Israel’s participation and several events focusing on Israel-UAE collaboration gave Gitex a boost.

The conference featured two events centered on Israel — the inaugural UAE-Israel Future Digital Economy Summit on Monday and the Israel Innovation Discovery Day on Tuesday.

“The fact that we are here this year is historic,” said Moshiel Biton, the CEO of Addionics, an Israeli startup that is redesigning the architecture of batteries.

At his stand at the exhibition, he said that the UAE is “open to our technologies. We want our idea to get to new targets; there is huge potential.”

Similarly, Gil Elgrably of RightHear, a startup that helps visually disabled people orient themselves in public spaces, said he felt moved about being an Israeli in Dubai. “This is the first time for me,” he said.

Idan Meir, left, and Gil Elgrably of RightHear, attending Dubai’s Gitex exihibition for the first time; December 9, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Meanwhile, at the mall, two Israelis were busy withdrawing cash from an ATM, while a Hebrew-speaking couple said they were in Dubai to promote real estate projects, both commercial and residential. “We have linked up with a big Dubai firm,” the man, who preferred not to reveal his name, said.

The Israelis milled around among luxury brands with the other shoppers, who were scarcer than usual because of the pandemic. Tall men with traditional white robes and headdresses tied with black rope sat in coffee shops; women in black robes and face coverings clutched expensive handbags, window shopping with friends or talking on their cellphones. All were masked. At one point a recording of a Muslim call to prayer sounded throughout the mall.

An Emirati resident taking a picture with Fathlla Mreih, right, a journalist from Israel in Dubai, December 9, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

A 30-year-old Israeli woman told The Times of Israel she had started working a week ago at a stand set up by a US firm, Earth Scientific, at the mall. “I am a sales trainer,” she said. “I am teaching them how to sell the products.” She had just explained to her colleagues the meaning of the Hebrew words ma koreh? — “what’s up?”

At the Sephora store, a Syria-born makeup salesman who has been in Dubai for 16 years said that the first time he met Israeli customers in the store, a few days earlier, he “cringed,” his body curling up to demonstrate what he felt. “But then — it was okay,” he said. “They are very nice.” Yes, he said as he packed lipsticks into a bag, there had been many Israelis in the store, and they had bought a lot. He laughed.

Outside the Maydan Hotel, also in Dubai, on Wednesday evening, an Emirati resident dressed in a flowing white robe was waiting to be picked up. He started chatting with a group of journalists, and when they said they were from Israel he smiled warmly and said: “Welcome, welcome.” Thereupon ensued a flurry of selfies full of grins and thumbs-ups. All then waved goodbye in a moment of unbridled happiness and set off in a rush, each to their destination.

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