We do business with Iran…
And Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Qatar… Meet the Jews who have overcome political and religious divides to trade successfully with both liberal and hardline Muslim states.
Lloyd Dorfman is the chairman of Travelex, the world’s largest foreign-exchange specialist. The group provides international payment services for commercial and personal customers, in addition to money services to financial institutions and travel agencies.
Founded by Dorfman in 1976, it operates in 107 airports and 33 countries, including Arab states with no diplomatic relations with Israel — Oman, Bahrain, and Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah (the latter three part of the United Arab Emirates).
Dorfman, who is 55, considers doing business in the Middle East to be essential if you are to be part of the global economy. “The Middle East is a very fast-growing and important part of that world,” he explains. “We need to be operational there, and we are.”
Travelex’s Middle East business, he says, currently represents nine per cent of the profits returned by the group’s retail trade.
He insists that he has never encountered a problem related to antisemitism or anti-Zionism in doing business in the region.
“In a lot of these cases you have to have a local partner, and I’ve always told my guys to front up to the fact that the founder and chairman [of the group] is Jewish, and it’s never, ever been a problem. We’ve got some great partners.”
He recalls: “One time, I was there [in a Middle East country] before Rosh Hashanah and I remember one of the business partners wishing me a happy New Year — unprompted — before I left.
“I’ve said that sometimes I wonder that if the world was left to business people, that actually we would make a lot more progress, because business people are pragmatic and sensible and it’s about developing the opportunity. It’s only when the politicians get involved that things can get rather more complicated.”
He notes that Travelex has tried several times to establish an operation in Israel, but says: “It has always proved more difficult to get business going in Israel than it has [elsewhere] in the Middle East.”
Why? “If we are going into a new country, we normally like to start off in the airport, and there hasn’t been an opportunity to do that. The right opportunity just hasn’t come along.”
MCC Group, London
Terry Newman is a director at the MCC Group, a London-based company specialising in medical consultancy and construction, including the construction of mobile hospitals and clinics.
The 27-year-old, who divides his time between the Middle-East and London, has recently returned from a 10-day visit to Sudan, where his company is building a mobile clinic and base camp for the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Darfur. Sudan has consistently refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
He says: “We were originally looking to take mobile hospitals into Egypt when a Palestinian colleague, who lives in Indonesia, contacted us about a tender for the UN.”
Newman’s company is responsible for building the entire base camp for the Indonesian delegation, which includes accommodation, kitchen, generators and water-purification units.
“Now that the political and religious channels for interfaith co-ordination have dried up, it is the business community which must lead this effort,” he says. “Business turns everyone into a beneficiary of the co-operation — from the Prime Minister to the factory manager to the worker on the factory floor. In the business world, you look for similarities to work together for mutual benefit, whereas in politics and religion the leadership too often look for the differences.
“There are many in the Muslim and Arab world who want to work with Jews and Israelis. For example, an Egyptian colleague of mine recently told me: ‘We are happy to work with China who don’t have gods, we are happy to work with India who worship cows, surely we must be happy to work with Jews or Israelis who worship the One God?’”
Nonetheless, he says it is not always rosy. He recalls that only a few weeks ago, his Egyptian colleague was stopped and interrogated by the Egyptian Security Forces on his return journey to Cairo for meeting with Israelis in the Sinai.
“You need to be careful. But, thankfully, I speak Arabic and I understand and respect the local culture — so they treat me well.
“There is a lot of potential for doing business in the Middle East. Turkey is a remarkable country, as are Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Bahrain.”
Israeli entrepreneur Gideon Kasfiner, 51, based in North-West London, is managing director of luggage-forwarding company First Luggage and he does business with Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Dubai and Qatar. This side of his business is worth £300,000, five per cent of his operation’s turnover.
He says: “I’m quite happy working with anybody in the world. Life is too short to make enemies, and business is business.
“Even though I am Israeli-born, I have two passports so I don’t have a problem going to visit the countries. When I say I’m from Israel, my clients are actually quite interested to have a discussion about it — partly because of the political situation.
“I was on the phone to a client in Saudi Arabia and he’s talking to me and asks me where I’m from. I say I’m from Israel, and he’s really interested to talk to me. I think a lot of the Arabs do want to get on with us, and they’re quite happy to talk and exchange ideas.
“We have got to co-exist. When I looked at operating in certain countries, I said to myself: ‘I’ll deal with it in one way or another,’ but luckily it worked well. Maybe it would put some people off, but it doesn’t put me off.”
Manchester businessman Ian Jacobson owns Herbal Heatpack, which sells wheat- and lavender-filled pain-relief packs. The company — whose sales director, Ian Caplan, is also Jewish — recently signed an exclusive one-year deal with Pharmed, an Iranian healthcare and pharmaceutical distributor after the owner’s wife discovered the product while on a trip to the UK.
Jacobson, who is 55, says: “We were concerned when the approach was made to us. This is the first time we have had dealings in Iran. The fact that we’re Jewish and their country was Iran, we wanted to make sure they knew we were Jewish so there was no problem in the future.
“But in fact, distributor Dr Eghbal has a number of Jewish friends there, and the family that he stays with in the UK is Jewish. He’s had good experiences with the Jewish community and that is why he wanted to go ahead.
“We have not been there, but the difficulty with trade in Iran is they make it hard for people to import anything or do business with anyone outside of their country.
“It took about two months before they had permission to send us the money and for us to send them the goods, and that was following a lot of preparation. The authorities insisted on every type of qualification to prove the product was from where we said it was from. They did not make it easy whatsoever. After the goods had arrived, it took about another month or five weeks to get through customs.
“But as a company and as individuals, they are absolutely fantastic and an absolute pleasure to deal with. Their English is excellent and I feel strongly that where there is mutual benefit in business, there can be mutual benefit in understanding each other better. In my experience over the last 30 years in business, there’s never been a difficulty in getting along with the individuals in a number of Middle Eastern states. The difficulty generally has been from the authorities.
“To be honest, it is more difficult dealing with Israelis in business.”
Suzi Woolfson is a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, advising entrepreneurial companies all over the world.
The 43-year-old mother-of-three, who lives in North-West London, says: “I have dealt with clients in the Middle East. Currently I work with a retail company in Dubai and a property company in Abu Dhabi. As it happens, when I went [there], I had a new passport. I understand that if I went now, I would have a problem, because I have been to Israel since then.
“I was very up-front about being Jewish. I didn’t want them to find out part way through the process. We sometimes have the same issues with other clients if they are looking for a particular type of person.
“It’s about what the client wants. Some people only want to work with women. Some men only want to work with men. It happens both ways. But it’s unusual for Jews to work in the Middle East.
“In fact, they thought: ‘Here is a nice Jewish woman who is going to look after me.’ And on my side there are the same issues as dealing with Israeli clients — they close shop up on Friday lunchtime and work on Sundays.
“Ultimately, you do business, but I do personally believe that actually if you compare it to the Holocaust, you can’t hate every German. My father wouldn’t do business with Germans, but I’m from a different generation.
“You give everyone a chance until they prove you otherwise. I’m using the values that I have been brought up with.”