Making inroads: An unlikely 38-hour drive from Dubai to Jerusalem, via Riyadh

Jewish US businessman Bruce Gurfein is on a three-week round-trip between the UAE and Israel to promote partnerships in food and desert technology. He’s doing it all in his car

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Bruce Gurfein and Joe Koen (left) cross into Israel at the Aqaba border crossing in Jordan, August 12, 2022. (Courtesy)
Bruce Gurfein and Joe Koen (left) cross into Israel at the Aqaba border crossing in Jordan, August 12, 2022. (Courtesy)

A week ago, Jewish American businessman Bruce Gurfein left his home in Dubai for a long drive.

In his SUV and with one of his employees at his side, Gurfein drove west on the United Arab Emirates’ E11 highway, the shores of the Persian Gulf to his right. After about 10 hours and approximately 1,000 kilometers (some 621 miles), Gurfein reached his first destination: Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

Gurfein’s journey was branded as the first ever land journey from the UAE through Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Israel. He embarked on the road trip to promote his regional accelerator for food and desert technology.

On Friday, Gurfein crossed into Israel and arrived in Jerusalem after a total of 38 hours on the road, covering more than 3,580 kilometers (nearly 2,225 miles), and stopping in major cities of the countries he passed through.

Gurfein’s new entrepreneurial accelerator is called Future Gigs. His idea is to connect companies and businessmen in the region in the fields of food technologies and desert agriculture, and to bring Israeli companies to do business in Saudi Arabia.

“The journey is a way to raise awareness that there is still no peace between all the countries, but that the way to bring peace is through good business relations between the nations,” Gurfein told The Times of Israel in a phone interview, while in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah on Friday.

“Good business relations: This is what they managed to do between the Emirates and Bahrain and Israel, and this is also the reason why the Abraham Accords is a warm peace compared to the cold peace between Israel and Jordan and Egypt,” he said.

Gurfein, a US native, has lived in the United Arab Emirates since 1997. A practicing Jew who wears a kippa, he is active in establishing contacts with Israeli companies in the Emirates. He says there are already Israeli companies operating in Saudi Arabia, despite the lack of ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

“The Israeli companies are not operating under an Israeli name and identity,” he explained. “There is an Israeli technology, which goes through another company that is registered elsewhere, and then, when transferring technology, there is no source of origin of the product as opposed to selling physical products.”

Asked if he could identify companies already active in Saudi Arabia, Gurfein answered that he could not go into specifics, “but I will give you two examples. One Israeli company that we help to work in Saudi Arabia deals with technology in the field of citrus cultivation. Another technology company deals in the field of water filtration.”

Gurfein sent a picture of himself and his passenger-employee, Joe Koen, standing in a citrus plantation in the Jeddah area. Koen is a Greek native who also lives in Dubai.

Bruce Gurfein (left) and Joe Koen pose for a photo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, August 9, 2022. (Courtesy)

“From Riyadh, we drove to Jeddah and then to Al-‘Ula — which is the agricultural center of Saudi Arabia,” Gurfein said. “Then Tabuk, Neom [the futuristic smart city] and from there we [cross] into Jordan via Aqaba.”

The two are now spending the week in Jerusalem, where they will meet with technology companies in Jerusalem and Beersheba and with experts in desert cultivation.

“From there, we will return to Saudi Arabia, through the Palestinian Authority and then Jordan,” he said. “And then eastward, we will cross through a more northern area and travel in areas that are closer to Iraq, and we will also visit Bahrain before arriving home, to the United Arab Emirates. All in all, the trip is planned for three weeks.”

On their way to Israel, Gurfein and Koen drove for seven or eight hours a day. The regional weather in August is very hot, but according to him, after 25 years in Dubai, he is used to the temperatures.

“At this time of year, there are fewer vehicles on the roads and, in terms of heat, this week, on the drive between Riyadh and Jeddah, we even got caught in rain and a sandstorm,” he said.

Asked whether his Jewishness was an issue at meetings in Saudi Arabia, Gurfein said most Saudis “do not distinguish between a Jew and an Israeli. For them, every Jew is a Zionist and every Zionist is an Israeli.”

But it wasn’t a problem. In fact, “they welcomed me warmly,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia has changed in recent years. They removed antisemitic sections from the textbooks. About five-to-six years ago, Saudi’s Islamic religious police enforced rules against women who walked without headscarves, but nowadays, it’s not the case anymore. We see women who run marathons, drive, and more.”

Gurfein said he was seeing “significant change” in the country, though he added that “regarding relations with Israel, I believe it will take many years.”

He explained that this was “not because people are full of hatred, but because the education process is long. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working on the internal change, but Israel is not the only thing on their agenda, and the change will come if they see other benefits [not related to Israel].”

Gurfein said that in his meetings in Riyadh last week, everyone knew he was Jewish. While there, he met with two Palestinians from Gaza whom he is helping to establish a start-up. He said the two men were fully aware of his religious background and his warm attitude toward Israel.

According to Gurfein, he chose to share photos from his road trip on social media along the way, because he believes many people do not know what Saudi Arabia looks like from the inside. And during his time in Israel, he seeks to achieve the same goal for those who know little about the Jewish state.

To them, he said “Israel is a place where people run around with guns and shoot Palestinians, so it is important to me that whoever follows the journey, also sees Israel.”

Gurfein said that, “in 20-30 years, we hope that there will be railroads from Israel to the Emirates, via Saudi Arabia. We are currently opening the roads with this trip.”

The businessman said that as far as he was aware, he was the first person to make such a land trip.

“When I went to get a travel permit from the authorities in Dubai [to travel in the vehicle to Israel], the officials told me that they had never given permission to bring a vehicle into Israel,” he said.

“For me, it’s like driving from New York to Canada or from Germany to Greece. I had to pay insurance to drive the car into Saudi Arabia.”

He said Israeli officials also helped him with enabling the car coming from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to enter the country.

“I have visited Israel many times,” he added. “I have warm relations with businessmen and with Israelis and I really like the country. In the past, I had to fly to Israel via Cyprus or other places. In the last two years, the flights are direct, and now — 38 hours by car.”

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