I came to the Bahrain Peace to Prosperity Workshop with relatively low expectations. This was due to the changes to the format in the weeks leading up to the event, with the Palestinians declining to attend (as expected) and Israeli government officials, including Finance Minister Kachlon, not receiving an invitation.
I was worried that the attendance would be low, and that Jared Kushner would walk back some of the importance of this conference. After the opening session Tuesday night, I realised how wrong my pre-conceptions been, and that this conference would be an important starting point in the “Deal of the Century” peace process.
Firstly, the room was packed, with about a third of the group being Arabs in traditional dress, and also included some kippah sporting Jews, both American and Israeli.
Jared Kushner opened the conference with a presentation of his detailed framework to invest $50B in the region, with $28B directed to the Palestinian territories and the balance divided between neighbouring Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon.
That President Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser had clearly spent months working on this comprehensive investment plan to boost the Palestinians sends a strong message that the United States cares about the Palestinian people, and wants to bring economic prosperity to them, as the beginning of the peace dividend that will flow from a deal between the parties.
After Kushner’s master class presentation, we had a discussion by two of the world’s largest property developers, American Steven Schwartzman of Blackstone Group and Emirati Mohammad Allabar, who developed much of Dubai, and has an extensive portfolio of projects worldwide. They were asked what would it take to invest in Palestine.
Both indicated two pre-conditions: Rule of Law and Proper Governance conditions. They challenged the Palestinians to reform, and indicated that they would be eager investors. Serbia was used as a test case, with Allabar indicating that he had brought major projects there, once the government provided the necessary investment conditions, following a devastating period of war and instability in the Balkans.
At dinner, I joined a group of Israelis that sat down with the Palestinian businessmen who had defied the PA’s boycott and come to encourage investment in their communities.
Fittingly, as neighbours, we spoke Hebrew to one another, as their English is not so good.
The next day, the conference proceeded with many presentations from a world class line-up including IMF Chair Christine Lagarde, former British PM Tony Blair, and US Commerce Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
But much of the real action throughout was on the sidelines, as business people from different backgrounds engaged enthusiastically with one another. There was absolutely no hostility towards Israel; quite the contrary, as Arab officials were looking for Israelis to bring their ingenuity, and invest in their countries. This was a major part of the success of this event: getting business to business contacts and communication, with commerce leading the way to a full rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world, with the blessing of their governments.
I had the personal privilege of a private meeting with the King’s third son, His Highness Sheikh Nasser, Minister of Youth and Sport. He sent a car to drive me to the Palace, where we met in his office and discussed our mutual interest in youth sports. The Prince is the owner of the Bahrain-Merida professional cycling team which participated in last year’s Giro d’Italia, which began in Israel.
I co-own the Israel Cycling Academy, the first professional team in my country. We discussed potential joint projects, as it would send a strong message that Israelis and Bahrainis can work together to promote sportsmanship. I mentioned that I had built the first velodrome in the Middle East, a
nd invited him to send his young cyclists to train on our track with our youth development programme. He told me that his aspiration was to have Bahraini cyclists on his professional team; I replied that my Israeli team boasts five Israeli riders.
Finally, we talked about our respective personal bike racing careers (Sheikh Nasser is an accomplished cyclist, and I am a two time world Master’s champion), and we pledged to go on a ride together, either in Israel or Bahrain (or both). It was a very warm meeting, and we pledged to seek areas of mutual interest to cooperate. I invited him to visit Israel, and offered to be his personal tour guide. As I was leaving, property magnate Mohammed Allabar showed up at the Palace to meet with his close friend, the Prince. I was warmly introduced, and we took pictures together.
This workshop is just a small beginning, but if the warmth and sense of cooperation and ambition that existed throughout can be continued in tangible ways, it portends well for a future warm peace between Israel and the Sunni Arab world.
I left with a feeling of cautious optimism. Now, we need to see if pressure from their people and neighbouring Arab countries, who currently subsidise their existence, can force the Palestinian leadership to re-consider its intransigence in the hope for a better future.
- Sylvan Adams is an Israel-based businessman and philanthropist