The Jewish New Year kicked off with the hope of longed-for peace for Israel and its neighbors with the signing of treaties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, a move that one Jewish public relations executive who has worked extensively in the Gulf countries predicted will have a domino effect in the region.
Ariella Steinreich, senior vice president at New York area-based Steinreich Communications Group, Inc., has been tasked with overseeing her agency’s new specialty practice area working with Gulf and Israel clients looking for business opportunities with each other. The international agency also has offices in Israel.
Steinreich based her observation on her decade-long experience in the six Gulf countries. In fact, in a phone interview with The Jewish Link several days before the Bahrain announcement she predicted it would be the next to follow the UAE.
“My opinion is that 1000% yes,” said the Teaneck native about other countries establishing diplomatic relations. “There are Jews who have been doing business in the Gulf for many years but Israelis have never been able to do business there before. The way it works in the Gulf is once you’ve got your foot in the door in one of the six, you become trusted by all in Gulf culture. It now will be easier for Israelis to jump in the others.”
The UAE and Bahrain are the third and fourth Arab counties to establish relations with Israel and the first since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
Contrary to what some may expect of the nations’ Muslim populations, Steinreich has found both its residents and officials respectful of her Judaism.
“I go to these countries several times a year and I have never experienced anti-Semitism,” said Steinreich. “All the Gulf states have tremendous respect for religion and religious people and Judaism is no different.”
One incident in Saudi Arabia that occurred in January particularly stands out in her mind. A business trip that was supposed to end on Thursday was extended when a meeting was unexpectedly moved to Friday morning, forcing Steinreich to stay through Shabbat. While she always brings her own kosher food and supplements it with whole fresh fruits and vegetables, she was left unprepared for her protracted stay.
The Saudi government had assigned an aide, Abdullah, to assist Steinreich. Abdullah had observed that she only ate her own food and when he realized she would be staying through Shabbat he called Steinreich, saying, “I know you cannot use your phone on Shabbos—he actually had begun calling it Shabbos by the end of the week—and I want to make sure you have your own fruits and vegetables so tell me what you want and I will make sure it arrives in time for your Sabbath.”
The landmark American-brokered treaty signed Sept. 15 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in attendance at the White House has already ushered in historic changes. Abu Dhabi’s government has ordered all hotels in the emirate to make kosher food available to any guest. Emirates in the UAE function similarly to states in the United States with each having its own local government.
A statement from the Orthodox Union (OU) confirms it has been asked by the leadership of the UAE to be the leading kosher certification agency.
“As the Jewish community in the United Arab Emirates continues to grow, and due to the influx of Jewish tourists, there is a need for kosher food and a certification that is internationally known,” said OU Kosher CEO Rabbi Menachem Genack. “We thank the UAE government for reaching out to us to provide this service and are looking forward to partnering with the local Jewish community to provide kosher food and certification.”
On Sept. 17, the kosher Armani/Kaf restaurant opened in the Burj Khalifa’s Armani Hotel in Dubai. Steinreich noted the opening of the Gulf, which has undergone a “tremendous transformation” in the last 10 years, to Israelis will provide a conduit for the Gulf states and Israel to exchange a plethora of information, including scientific, educational, healthcare, finance and technology. She also believes fashion will be another area that will flourish under the new accords, since the Gulf is a mixture of secular women in more modern attire and traditional with modest dress with hijabs.
“Israel is highy regarded in these fields and everybody in the Gulf wants access to that,” said Steinreich. “The people in the Gulf are very smart. They’ve always wanted access. The problem was the political hurdle.”
Even for the Palestinians, should they choose to eventually agree to a peace accord, there is “unprecedented, tremendous economic opportunity,” she said. The peace accords will also open avenues of communication, giving Gulf residents access to previously blocked Israeli websites. The technological blackout was so all-encompassing, Steinreich previously could not even make a phone call to Israel from the Gulf.
Steinreich, a graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls now living on the Upper West Side, began working in the Gulf while employed at another public relations firm where her area of expertise was oil and gas. About six years ago, she moved to her present firm, where her father, Stan, is president and CEO, as more Jewish-owned companies sought to do business in the Arabian Gulf.
There are small expatriate Jewish communities—estimates of its size vary from several hundred to 1,500—in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and two synagogues in Dubai, which are Orthodox in practice, that hold minyanim. The UAE has announced it is constructing an Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi housing a mosque, church and synagogue.
Bahrain has the only indigenous Jewish community in the Gulf, which once numbered 1,500 but dwindled significantly after the establishment of Israel and has one synagogue and a Jewish cemetery.
“This is a historic moment that we have never expected to see in our lifetime,” the head of Bahrain’s Jewish community, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo, said in a statement.
His niece, Houda Nonoo, is the former Bahraini ambassador to the United States, becoming the first Jew and woman to serve in the position from an Arab country.
Minyanim had not been held in the country in some years until last year’s Peace to Prosperity Conference, at which the Trump administration rolled out its Middle East Peace plan. The minyan was arranged by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and the administration’s top Middle East peace negotiator, Jason Greenblatt. Steinreich arranged for Israeli journalists to enter the country on Israeli passports for the first time.
Kushner commissioned a Torah scroll for the Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. On a trip to the gulf nation Kushner hand-delivered the scroll “written in his honor” to the king, according to an article in the Jewish Insider.
As relations begin to unfold, Steinreich believes her familiarity with Gulf culture and Jewish values will prove an invaluable bridge between its members and Israelis.
“There are things like body language that mean something different in the Gulf and people doing business there need to understand,” she explained, along with other cultural nuances.
For example, if an American or Israeli sent someone an e-mail at 8 a.m. and hadn’t gotten a response 12 hours later, they would assume it was overlooked or forgotten and send another.
“In the Gulf it would be viewed as putting on too much pressure,” said Steinreich, “and it could make or break a deal.”
For Steinreich perhaps nothing signals the bright future of Israeli-Arab relations more than messages she has received from colleagues and acquaintances in the Arab world wishing her a happy and healthy Rosh Hashanah—many of them in Arabic.
By Debra Rubin