A dozen experts have predicted a wide range of increasing partnerships and connections between Israel and Gulf countries in the new year. This will cover a spectrum of activity from technology to academic and political developments. The rapid change since the Abraham Accords began in August has led to one of the fastest growing global relationships between countries.
Houda Nonoo, former Ambassador of Bahrain to the United States, said that 2021 will be even more exciting than the history making that took place this year. The impact of the Abraham Accords will come to fruition.
"At the core of this agreement is the desire to create a Middle East that is built on peace and prosperity for us all," she said. "I believe that the growing partnerships between Bahrain and Israel will lead to sustainable peace in the region. Next year, we will see collaborations in the business, healthcare, education, travel and tourism sectors, which will further bring our leaders' bold vision to reality."
Nonoo is a member of the small and historic Jewish community of Bahrain. She says that the new year will be important for the community. "We plan to open our newly refurbished synagogue in the first quarter of the year. We embarked on the process of refurbishing the synagogue before the Abraham Accords were announced, but now its significance has come to the fore, as we prepare to welcome many new Jewish tourists to visit us next year.
"This year also brought with it the first hotel in the Kingdom – the Ritz Carlton in Manama – to offer kosher food, and we're working with many other hotels to offer kosher food in the new year," she said. "We look forward to welcoming you."
In the United Arab Emirates, Najat AlSaied, who holds a PhD in media studies and is an expert on political communication and societal development, said she foresees cooperation in many fields, especially academic, and in research studies and joint publications. There will be "more collaboration in the health industry and getting physicians to meet." There will also be media cooperation, as the countries that made peace are facing hostility from those who oppose the agreements.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a pioneer in developing Israel's ties in the Gulf and a co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, envisions an expansion of Israeli tourism in the Gulf. 2021 "will certainly be the year where Emiratis, Bahrainis and hopefully other Abraham Accords countries will dip their toes in the water, come and visit Israel and pray in Jerusalem," she says.
In the business sector, Israeli technology companies will be looking to the Gulf markets for sales of their products. "The serious companies with a well-thought-out business development strategy and presence on the ground will be the winners, as Gulf countries that are looking to make their businesses more cutting edge will look to Israel for inspiration and, more importantly: innovation."
Mohammed Baharoon, Director General of the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre, sees more multilateral cooperation in the next year. "But there will be a threshold where this will have to be translated into more constructive peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, which will be required for expansion of the Abrahamic Accords," he asserts.
The Israeli businesses who have entered the Gulf this year through the UAE or Bahrain will have the upper hand, as it will be an easy transition to move into the other Gulf markets once they normalize relations, says Ariella Steinreich, senior vice president and head of the Middle East Division of Steinreich Communications. She has played a key role with many of those who are building paths in the Gulf in the wake of the new ties.
"The road to success here is to go into the Bahrain or UAE market as soon as possible so that you can build your brand's name locally in the Gulf – and then as soon as the next country comes online, you can be one of the first to enter.
"While there has been much focus on Israeli companies doing business in the Gulf these last few months, I believe we're going to see more Gulf companies do business in Israel as a gateway to the broader international Jewish community," she says. "We will see that start in certain sectors such as travel and tourism, finance and technology."
"The relationship between Israel and its new partners in the UAE and Bahrain will deepen substantially in 2021," says Dorian Barak, co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council. After the ongoing tourism boom, Israeli food, health, beauty, and consumer products will make their way onto the shelves of Emirati and Bahraini retailers. He predicts that with time, there will be larger products but that the immediate economic impact will be more minor.
"Israelis and Emiratis, and to a lesser extent Bahrainis, will enter into joint ventures in the areas of water, waste management, renewables, and healthcare. As exciting as this sounds, we shouldn't overstate the potential. Israel's most significant trading partners will remain the US, EU, China and India, which are orders of magnitude larger than the UAE and Bahrain, with populations of 10 million and 1.5 million, respectively."
At Oasis Investments, Thani Al-Shirawi, the deputy managing director who has been enthusiastic about peace, sees the Gulf as offering a place for Israeli start-ups to scale up through a hub that is close to Asia and Africa. He recently worked on a Memorandum of Understanding with Fluence, a company pioneering water filtration, and is optimistic about all the new ties for the coming year.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, says he predicts that we will see the expansion of Jewish life in the UAE. That will mean more Jewish families visiting and moving to the Emirates, as well as a growth in Jewish community infrastructure.
"Our community was blessed to receive a lot of interest this last year, especially after the Abraham Accords, and we expect that interest to increase three-fold in 2021 once more people are comfortable traveling here," he said. "With this expected growth, we will expand kosher food options, Jewish learning opportunities and much more.
"We're also excited for the new kosher food on Emirates flights emanating out of Dubai, which was announced a few months back and expected to launch in 2021," he says.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, the world's largest kosher certification agency, also predicts more Jewish and Israeli tourism. There have already been some 70,000 people who made their way to Dubai from Israel in 2020. More kosher food will be required.
"Following the signing of the Abraham Accords, OU Kosher played an important role in certifying kosher food – restaurants and hotels – in both countries, but we expect those numbers to dramatically increase in 2021 once we get on the other side of the COVID pandemic and more people are comfortable traveling," he said. "We expect more hotels in Bahrain to announce kosher offerings during the first quarter of the new year."
More Gulf states will normalize relations with Israel, says Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. "Everyone is waiting for the Saudis, Qataris and Omanis to normalize relations with Israel, and they've been very clear that they will only do so once Israel and the Palestinians have both come to the table to discuss peace.
"President-elect Joe Biden presents the opportunity to do just this as the Palestinians feel they have an ally in him," he said, "and he will likely be the person to get them to come back to the table, at which point the Saudis, Qataris and Israel can establish relations.
The UAE and Bahrain are both focused on providing kosher options in hotels. Genack says religious and cultural rituals are important in the Gulf, and people there recognize Jewish religious needs.
"The same way that Halal is important to Islam, they understand that kosher food is important to Jews," he said. "Additionally, Arab hospitality is all about making sure that your guest is comfortable, and they understand that in order for Jews to travel comfortably to the UAE and Bahrain, they need to have access to delicious kosher cuisine."
Schneier believes that we will see the building and dedication of more synagogues and Jewish institutions and establishments as a result of growing Jewish life and community in the Gulf.
"Tied to this, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding recently launched the first ever American Jewish Tourism initiative to Bahrain, and we plan to formally announce similar programs in partnership with the Ministers of Tourism in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar in 2021, he said. "The Gulf has been moving at an accelerated pace to create the infrastructure to stimulate Jewish tourism to their countries."
The comments across sectors, from business people to politicians, think tank experts, media gurus, public relations professionals, diplomats and religious figures, some of whom spoke off the record to The Jerusalem Post, provide a wide range of predictions that see expansion across many sectors.
Some have warned that Israeli methods of doing business, expecting quick outcomes instead of building long-term ties that are based on trust, family friendships and understanding of the local culture, may be a hurdle.
Others have suggested that what is unique about doing business in the Gulf is the number of people working there from other countries, giving access to entrepreneurs and business leaders from across Africa to India and China. Israelis are already in some of these are markets, while others are markets such as Saudi Arabia that could plug in well with Israel – if the new era of peace grows.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.