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UAE, Israel eye economic benefits of normalisation deal

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Dubai (AFP)

Hard hit by the coronavirus, the UAE and Israel expect rapid dividends from their normalisation deal, which gives the Jewish state "kosher" access to the wealthy Gulf for the first time.

From oil to tourism to cutting edge technologies, the two countries hope to benefit from the ripple effect of their "historic" agreement to be signed in three weeks time.

The oil-rich United Arab Emirates, with big ambitions in space and technology, is the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel and only the third Arab country to do so after Egypt and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia has said it will not follow in the UAE's footsteps until Israel has signed a peace accord with the Palestinians.

Economically, "Israel and the UAE should benefit from this new relationship tremendously," says Ellen R. Wald, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global Energy Center.

While Israel's focus will mainly be on the Gulf state's oil wealth, the UAE is set to invest heavily in Israel's tourism and high-tech sectors.

- 'Hungry customer' -

Dubai, which has the most diversified economy in the region, saw its GDP contract 3.5 percent in the first quarter following two years of modest growth.

Its Emirates airline, the leader in Middle East aviation, was forced to downsize and cut thousands of jobs.

After years of growth, the Israeli economy is facing a "severe recession", with GDP set to fall by 6.2 percent this year, according to official projections, while unemployment has jumped from 3.4 percent in February to 23.5 percent in May.

Normalisation could boost recovery.

"Israel would benefit greatly if it can purchase UAE oil, and the UAE will benefit if it can sell to a hungry customer," said Wald.

Israel wants to attract business for its tourism industry, especially in the Mediterranean metropolis of Tel Aviv, and to attract Muslim visitors to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site.

Currently most of the millions of Israelis who travel abroad each year head to Europe or the United States, but that could now change.

In Israel's third largest city of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab and Jewish population, travel agency Mirage Tours has already started advertising travel to Dubai with the promise "soon".

"I get a lot of calls from Arabs and Jews and there're many Jews who ask me for a seat when there is a first flight," said owner George Muhashim.

Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 but some of his customers are nervous about visiting two countries, with which the Jewish state fought bitter and bloody wars in the past.

The UAE, however, is a dream destination Muhashim says.

- 'Kosher' -

On Sunday, Israel's Channel 12 television reported that the economy ministry had estimated exports to the UAE could reach between $300 million and $500 million a year.

UAE investments in Israel were predicted to amount to up to $350 million a year.

The sectors expected to gain the most were cyber industries, medical equipment, financial technology and communications, the report said.

"The Emiratis admire Israeli competitive advantage and know-how in the cyber and high-tech sectors and they absolutely want to get access to said know-how, as a very forward-looking leadership," said Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Over the past 20 years, the Israeli foreign ministry has helped "more than 500 Israeli companies who wanted to do business with companies in the Gulf states, resulting in deals worth millions of dollars," an official in Jerusalem said, on condition of anonymity.

Prior to last Thursday's announcement, business was done discreetly, according to Erel Margalit, head of Israeli investment company JVP - which specialises in innovation and cyber security.

"But now it's all 'kosher'... we shall have a more direct relationship and things will move faster," he told AFP.

- 'Headache' -

Israelis would occasionally meet Emiratis at international fairs or use employees with non-Israeli passports to travel there but products could not be identified as made in Israel.

Small Israeli start-up Bo&Bo Ltd had for two years been trying to distribute its advanced physiotherapy equipment in the UAE through third parties.

"It was a huge headache as you had to manufacture it in a different country," co-founder Gadi Nir told AFP.

Since last week's normalisation announcement, things have accelerated, with Bo&Bo having negotiated a first contract in the UAE to distribute its "Made in Israel" products there over the next three years.

But with the coronavirus pandemic still raging and direct flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai or Abu Dhabi yet to become reality, the contract signing ceremony is to take place on Zoom.

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