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Despite Tensions in Mideast, Some Joint Business Ventures Bloom

August 16, 2006
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At Abdallah El-Obra’s flower hothouse, the drip-irrigation tubes come from Tel Aviv-based Netafim Ltd., while Israel’s Ginegar Plastic Products Ltd. supplies the sheeting. The computerized irrigation system, manufactured by Galcon, is supplied by Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Galilee.

In fact, the only thing not Israeli about this operation is its location — just down a dirt road from the El-Bagah refugee camp, 10 miles northwest of Amman, Jordan.

Run by El-Obra, a 54-year-old Israeli Bedouin, this modest, six-man operation represents just a tiny fraction of the trade that flourishes today between Israel and Jordan.

“We produce 800,000 roses a year for the Jordanian market,” El-Obra said. “When that’s not enough, we also export from Israel once a week by truck. It takes three hours to cross the border.”

El-Obra has been in the flower business for years. He already owns a seven-hectare operation not far from Beersheba, in the desert town of Rahat.

El-Obra estimates that 500-1,000 Israelis commute across the Sheik Hussein Bridge every day to joint-venture factories and farms in Jordan.

“I wouldn’t change Israel for all the world. I was born there, and all my family is there,” the Bedouin exporter said proudly. “There are some Jordanians who don’t want to do business with Israel, but many others who do.”

Israeli trade officials would love to hear more of that kind of talk — especially from businessmen in the nearby oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

According to a 2002 report issued by the Israel Export Institute, annual trade between Israel and the Arab world comes to around $100 million a year, even in the absence of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement.

If true peace were to arrive, says the report, the economic benefits for everyone would be enormous.

The 28-page report, “Potential for Trade Between Israel and the Arab Countries,” outlines opportunities for Israeli exports and services in 11 Arab markets ranging from Bahrain to Syria to Morocco.

At present, the biggest opportunities are in the three Arab countries that have formally established diplomatic relations with Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania.

Despite chilly relations between Israel and Egypt, the two countries do have a peace treaty, and about 20 Israeli firms currently operate in Egypt. Together, they have invested $30 million or so in joint ventures, mainly in textiles, agricultural equipment, medical devices, plastics and air conditioners.

The report also suggests that the potential for Israeli exports to Jordan could be as high as $200 million per year — led by products such as irrigation systems, fresh fruits and vegetables, telecom equipment and synthetic raw materials for the textile industry.

“Israeli exporters can use Jordan as a platform for exports to the Persian Gulf countries,” says the study, estimating the future export potential from Israel to the Gulf states via Jordan at around $150 million a year. “At the same time, it will be difficult to realize this potential in light of the Gulf states’ established trade ties with suppliers from Western countries and the psychological difficulty in purchasing Israeli products.”

Experts agree that increased trade with the Arab world hinges on overcoming hatred of Israel among people throughout the Middle East.

A survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this year founded that 60 percent of Turks have “unfavorable” views of Jews — as do 88 percent in Morocco, 98 percent in Egypt, 99 percent in Lebanon and an astounding 100 percent in Jordan.

The hatred has been fueled in recent weeks by Arab TV networks’ images of Israeli bombing attacks on Lebanese towns and villages. Anti-Israel protests, some of them violent, have broken out across the Muslim world, from Nigeria to Iraq to Indonesia and beyond.

Yet at least one Israeli diplomat hasn’t given up hope.

“In general terms, we have good relations with the Gulf states. We consider them as potential partners for when peace will prevail,” said the official, who’s based in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Beyond that, the official — who asked not to be identified — declined to elaborate, except to say that “there are economic relationships” between private Israeli and Gulf Arab companies.

Israel inaugurated its Doha trade office in 1996, the same year it opened a similar mission in Muscat, the capital of oil-rich Oman. The latter office was closed in 2000, at the height of the Palestinian intifada.

Today Israel has no official presence in Oman. Nor does the sparsely inhabited country of 2.5 million have any Jews living in it. In fact, the only country in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council with a Jewish community at all is tiny Bahrain, home to exactly 36 Jews and a synagogue that has been closed since 1948.

The degree to which Israel’s existence is acknowledged varies from country to country.

For example, signs on public phones throughout Muscat list the international dialing codes of more than 100 countries — but not Israel — because Israel cannot be dialed from Oman. On the other hand, it’s easy to punch in Israel’s international access code from any call center in Bahrain, and the call costs only 18 cents a minute.

Bahrain recently signed a free-trade agreement with the United States, but it first had to drop its participation in the Arab League’s boycott of Israel, as demanded by Washington.

A similar trade pact involving Oman was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives after Oman’s minister of finance assured Washington that his country “does not apply any aspect of the boycott, whether primary, secondary or tertiary, or have any laws to that effect.”

Yet in Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, it’s difficult if not impossible to access most Jewish-related Web sites or any Web site ending in .il, the Internet domain for Israel.

Such attempts from Dubai — the commercial capital of the UAE — result in the following error message in Arabic and English: “We apologize. The site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.”

At a downtown Dubai travel office, a large wall map of the world publishing by a Dutch shipping company pinpoints the location of every country on Earth, but the name of Israel is rubbed out in black magic marker.

Likewise, The World — a mind-boggling $3 billion tourist and real-estate development that will look like a map of the world from space when it’s finished next year — contains 300 or so artificial islands each named after countries and regions of the globe. Every single member of the Arab League has its own island — but there is no island named “Israel.”

Even so, trade between Israel and the UAE is believed to total in the millions of dollars, though it’s all channeled through third countries like Cyprus.

Among Dubai’s huge expatriate community are hundreds if not thousands of Jews working for multinational companies and organizations.

One of the most prominent is Dr. Robert Thurer, chief academic officer of Dubai Healthcare City, a sprawling hospital complex being built on the outskirts of Dubai in conjunction with the Harvard Medical School.

“Nobody cares if I’m Jewish. It’s not an issue,” said the longtime Harvard professor, who grew up in Hicksville, N.Y. “Dubai is not about politics. It’s about economy and business.”

Thurer added: “My general feeling is that local people here don’t have anything against Jews, just the State of Israel. And they’re able to separate those two things.”

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