UAE shipping chief says initial trade with Israel could be worth over $5 billion

Head of Dubai’s DP World, one of globe’s largest port operators, says Israeli harbors will be valuable link for shipments between Middle East and Europe

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

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

Initial bilateral trade between Israel and the United Arab Emirates could be worth $5 billion, an Emirati shipping leader said Monday at an event with Israeli businesspeople in Dubai.

Ports in Israel will be valuable as a link for shipping between the Middle East and Europe, said Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chairman of DP World, one of the largest international port operators. The firm is in talks to jointly take over Haifa port with an Israeli company and has inked a deal with one of Israel’s leading banks.

“We estimate at least $5 billion of trade will happen between our countries in the beginning and this will grow,” bin Sulayem said at the inaugural UAE-Israel Future Digital Technology Summit, part of this week’s Gitex technology conference in Dubai.

“The port facilities [in Israel] will allow us to link our ports in Europe to the Middle East,” he said.

The Abraham Accords, signed by Israel, the UAE and Bahrain on September 15, normalized relations between the countries, opening up commercial ties.

DP World’s chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem at a presentation in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The state-owned DP World, based in Dubai, operates the kingdom’s Jebel Ali Port, the largest and busiest port in the Middle East.

An Israeli delegation attended the Gitex summit this week in Dubai for the first time. The annual event is one of the world’s largest tech summits, and the only major one taking place in-person this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event was significantly smaller than previous years due to COVID-19, but Israel’s participation and several events focusing on Israel-UAE collaboration gave this year’s 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 events are aimed at fostering networking between the two countries for business collaboration, investments and the sharing of ideas, with discussions focused on artificial intelligence, 5G technology, mobility, fintech and cybersecurity. Israeli representatives are also holding one-on-one business meetings with their international counterparts.

People visit an exhibit at the GITEX technology summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

In September, DP World said it would partner with an Israeli firm DoverTower in a bid to take over the country’s Haifa port, the largest shipping hub in the country.

DP World said in a statement that it signed memorandums of understanding with DoverTower, a company owned by Shlomi Fogel, the co-owner of Israel Shipyards and the Port of Eilat.

The two firms also said they would explore creating a direct shipping route from Jebel Ali port to Eilat.

In September, DP World and Israel’s Bank Leumi said they signed a memorandum of understanding to explore working together on increasing trade between Israel and the rest of the Middle East via shipping.

The MOU includes a framework for cooperation on developing ports and logistics infrastructure in Israel.

It includes the possibility of financing to develop Israel’s port sector, said Leumi, one of Israel’s two largest banks.

DP World runs operations as far east as Brisbane, Australia, and as far west as Prince Rupert, Canada. The company has expanded aggressively into East Africa, helping the Emirati government wield influence farther afield. Moving into Israel will grow that footprint.

But with the coronavirus pandemic shutting borders and disrupting global supply chains, DP World’s profits fell 56 percent during the first half of the year. Months before, DP World started delisting from the Dubai stock exchange, returning the company to full state ownership to help the Dubai government’s investment company repay more than $5 billion to banks.

DP World ultimately will be held by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dubai World, a government investment company.

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