Judging by the look on the face of the male receptionist, I can tell that he has never met a chasidic Jew before. It’s a few minutes before 10 a.m. in early September, and I have just strolled into the business headquarters of one of the most influential and powerful people in the United Arab Emirates, billionaire Mr. Khalaf Al Habtoor. The exterior of the building reminds me of the White House; I can’t help but wonder if this is intentional.
“May I help you?” the receptionist asks, no doubt thinking that I am lost.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m here to see the chairman.”
“Let me see,” he says, looking down at a ledger on his desk. Ami Magazine?”
“That’s right,” I reply.
“Please have a seat,” he says, pointing to a large waiting area. “You’re a few minutes early.”
The first thing I notice is a big fish tank. Couches are spread out around the room, and the UAE flag is on display near a flowing indoor waterfall. A display case features a row of books written Mr. Al Habtoor, and in the center of the room, a large-scale model of Al Habtoor City, a complex of three hotels, three residential towers and an entertainment center, is on proud display.
Yes, you heard right—the man I am about to meet has a city named after him. He also built the luxurious Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, the world’s only seven-star hotel. It was constructed on an artificial island and once held the Guinness record for being the tallest hotel in the world.
Born into a simple but well-connected family in what was then the Sheikhdom of Dubai, Mr. Al Habtoor personally witnessed the transformation of his beloved hometown from a dusty fishing and pearling enclave into a bustling business hub and exclusive vacation destination. He grew up in a barasti, a primitive hut made from palm leaves, but he overcame his humble beginnings by working hard and starting his first engineering company at a very young age.
It wasn’t long before the fledgling company garnered the attention of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who commissioned Al Habtoor to construct a building for him. The sheikh was very pleased with the company’s work, and soon it was doing quite well. The Al Habtoor Group, which now has motor and hospitality divisions and many other ventures, is considered one of the most distinguished companies in the United Arab Emirates and in the entire region.
Mr. Al Habtoor is very energetic and travels regularly all over the world. He is also an avid tennis player. With connections everywhere, Mr. Al Habtoor has long been seen as his country’s unofficial ambassador. Having followed his work for a while, I am very excited to be meeting him.
I am approached in the waiting room by the Al Habtoor Group’s chief communications officer, Ms. Noura Badawi, who leads me upstairs to a room filled with the chairman’s closest aides. Two large wooden doors suddenly open with a swoosh, and standing before me at the other end of this gigantic office is Khalaf Al Habtoor himself. He has a radiant smile on his face.
“Please,” he says, encouraging me to come closer.
Ms. Badawi motions for me to step inside the room, and the doors magically close behind us. The room is huge—larger than an average American house—and it is subdivided into several areas. There is a large desk at one end and a cluster of couches in another, as well as lounging and working areas. The floor is made of beautiful polished wood, and every piece of furniture is exquisite. It’s a lot to take in all at once.
Another UAE flag is on display, a reminder that Mr. Al Habtoor is a true patriot. The walls are adorned with interesting artifacts—swords, prestigious awards and photos taken with world leaders, including the likes of former American President Jimmy Carter (who I will soon learn is a cherished friend), the Queen of England, and of course, many Arab leaders. If I hadn’t been aware of it before, the photos would have made it clear that Mr. Al Habtoor keeps company with aristocrats.
Mr. Al Habtoor takes a few steps forward and extends his hand in greeting. I take his hand and shake it enthusiastically. He is clad entirely in white, from the keffiyeh on his head to the traditional Emirati long cloak he is wearing, called a kandura. He is holding a string of prayer beads, which he plays with during our conversation. Although Mr. Al Habtoor’s clothes are monochromatic, his personality is very colorful. He is bubbling with new ideas, full of laughter and quite outspoken. He is also extremely friendly and a delightful conversationalist.
During our chat, which is focused mainly on the topic of peace in the Middle East, I come to understand his unique perspective on some of the region’s most important issues. He is critical of Israel but also extends an olive branch to the Jewish state. He wants to see a better future for the Palestinians, but he isn’t shy about calling out their leaders when necessary.
“Khalaf Al Habtoor,” says Ms. Badawi, making a formal introduction.
“Good morning!” I say.
“Good morning,” he responds.
“It’s a real honor to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too. You are from the States,” he says.
“I am originally from Brooklyn, New York,” I explain.
“That’s a city I love,” he tells me with a smile.
“When did you arrive in this country?”
“Just yesterday?” he asks, surprised. He takes a seat near the window and motions for me to do the same.
“Yes, and so far everything has been wonderful. Yesterday I passed by the Burj Al Arab Hotel,” I tell him. “I understand that you built it.”
“It’s very beautiful,” I offer. “Unbelievable.”
“Where are you staying?” he asks. When I mention the name of the hotel, he asks which neighborhood it’s in.
“I really don’t know,” I say. “I’ve been using my GPS to get around.”
“You’re driving?” he asks, surprised once again.
“And it’s your first time in the country?”
“And you’re driving! That’s very good.”
“I was told that the roads here are wonderful,” I explain.
“So are the signs; they’re very easy to follow. But if you can drive in New York, you can probably drive anywhere. But first, what can I offer you to drink?” He motions for a butler, and within seconds a young uniformed man appears. “What would you like? Coffee? Juice? Tea?”
“Water would be great.”
“Water,” he calls out to the butler.
“I just want you to know that I feel very welcome here. I’ve been able to walk around like this,” I say, pointing to my yarmulke and peyos, which I have made no attempt to hide.
“Yes,” he says, as if this is a regular occurrence.
“It’s a bit of a surprise to me,” I say. “I wasn’t sure if it would be possible, but so far everyone is very friendly. People have been stopping me on the street and asking if they can take a picture with me. It’s been a very nice experience.”
Mr. Al Habtoor smiles, apparently accustomed to the cultural tolerance in Dubai.
“I understand you’re responsible for building up a lot of this city,” I say, trying to steer the conversation in another direction.
“That’s correct,” he says. But apparently he’s not done making small talk. “I used to have a friend who was a producer of documentaries. His name was Nat Sherman, a little short guy, and he was Jewish. He was one of the greatest men I ever knew, but unfortunately he passed away. I loved that guy. I still miss him.”
“There’s a famous tobacco shop in New York by that name,” I tell him. “They make their own luxury cigarettes and cigars.”
“I’ve heard of them. Maybe it’s the same family.”
Our little game of Jewish geography now over, he is ready for me to begin my questioning.
“One of the things I’ve noticed,” I say, “is that you are very outspoken when it comes to your vision for peace and tolerance in the Middle East. How did you get involved in this?”
Mr. Al Habtoor thinks for a moment before answering. “I’m not a politician, but whenever I feel that something is wrong, I state my opinion, even if some people don’t like it, although many people do. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to hide things. I’m transparent.”
“How is Israel perceived in the Gulf?” I wonder. “Is it a country that people want to partner with, or is it a curse they have no choice but to live with?”
“Look,” he says, “Israel is a very advanced country. I have many Israeli friends. I even bought one of my hotels, the Ritz Carlton Budapest, from an Israeli, and he’s like a brother to me. We text each other all the time and see each other often. I get a lot of comments on Twitter from Israelis, and they are overwhelmingly positive. Of course, I don’t like their behavior when they attack Palestinians and young children get killed. That’s unacceptable. But I also know that Israeli children are being killed by Hamas terrorists, who terrorize everyone.
“One of the big problems, which I have frequently written about, is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has resisted signing a peace deal with the Arabs. I can’t understand it. Let him shake hands with them! I would support that and so would many others, even if they aren’t saying it openly right now.
“The truth is that we can really benefit from one another. The people of the Gulf Cooperation Council [Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman] are educated, and so are the Israelis. We all have a lot to gain economically. I recently organized a mission comprised of students and professors from Illinois College to visit Israel and the Palestinians, and what they saw there was that everybody wants peace, aside from a few people who are resisting. I wish Netanyahu would say, ‘Let us work together and finish this as a team.’ Sometimes the Israelis don’t behave correctly, but in my opinion, Hamas is worse because they’re terrorists. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called for peace at a conference in Lebanon a number of years ago.”
“The Arab Peace Initiative,” I say, referring to the 2002 proposition, which never took off.
“Exactly. But Israel didn’t acknowledge it,” he replies, seemingly frustrated.
“Have you ever been to Israel?” I ask.
“No, although I’ve been invited many times.”
“The reason I’m asking is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that Israel cannot accept the pre-1967 borders because they are simply indefensible.”
“I don’t believe all that,” he says, shaking his head. “The biggest threat right now is Iran, which is an enemy of both Israel and the countries of the GCC. And there’s another thing I don’t understand. The other day I saw in the newspaper that Netanyahu has been publishing the exact locations in Lebanon and Syria where Hez-
bollah stores its weapons. Why isn’t he attacking them? We’re not on the border with them—Israel is!”
“You believe that they should do this?” I ask.
“Definitely. They have to dismantle Hez-
bollah and finish the job. Iran is fractured and weakened. People are starving. Now is the time. I wrote yesterday that I don’t trust the West. America brought all these warships into the region, so why aren’t they doing anything? When America wants to take action, it does so in no time at all. Just look at what they did in Iraq! Why aren’t they taking any action against Iran? I don’t want war, but sometimes things need to be done. America is just barking while Hezbollah has 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel and the GCC!”
“Lately there has been quiet cooperation between Israel and the Persian Gulf states,” I say. “Do you think it’s because of the mutual threat of Iran, or are there other shared interests as well?”
“I disagree with this kind of silent, hidden cooperation,” he tells me. “I want it to be out in the open. We have to be transparent with each other. No more bluffing.”
“Do you think this is something we can expect to see in the near future?”
“Definitely, both politically and economically. Why should we care what other people think? We shouldn’t need to seek the approval of anyone else in the world.”
“Are you referring to any particular country?” I ask.
“Anybody,” he says flatly. “America takes care of its priorities.”
“America first,” I say.
“Exactly, and we should do the same thing and state publicly that we want to have relations with Israel. But Israel has to dismantle Hamas, Hezbollah and the other terrorist groups. They could do it in no time at all. They have drones; it can be done. Every few months they fight for a few hours; then it gets quiet and then they fight again. It’s almost like a game.”
“Dubai will be hosting the World Expo next year,” I state. “I understand that Israel will be participating.”
“Yes. Our team has already met with them, and we are currently discussing how best to help them.”
“Do you think this is going to change the relationship between the two countries?”
“There is already communication. They will be having an exhibit and displaying their products.”
“It also means that they were invited,” I add.
“Yes. There are many Arabs who are being treated in Israeli hospitals,” he offers by way of explanation.
“From the Emirates?” I ask.
“From all over the world.”
“In the past you have been quoted as saying that if the Israelis and Palestinians were stuck on an island, everyone would get along. What does that mean?”
“There are two and a half million Palestinians in Israel. Many of them are doctors, businessmen and owners of car dealerships. These are people who work hand in hand with Christians and Jews, as well as with fellow Muslims. I don’t understand why they can’t just have a one-state solution,” he suggests.
“You prefer the one-state solution?” I ask, surprised.
“Yes,” he says coolly.
“But there’s already a single state.”
“That’s what I’m saying. And there are two and a half million Arabs living in it.”
“And they hold full citizenship,” I add.
“Can you believe that Arabs agreed to compensate other Arabs for becoming Israeli citizens?” he says, referring to the peace plan formulated in Bahrain a few months ago; one of its ideas was to have the wealthy Gulf States compensate Palestinians financially in exchange for agreeing to live in Israel. “A lot of these people are starving. I really feel sorry for them.
“But at this point in time, I say, the Palestinians aren’t on speaking terms with either the United States or Israel. And if they’re not willing to come to the table, how can we get them to arrive at any sort of solution?”
“I care about the Palestinian children, he says, the kids in kindergarten, primary school, high school and university. They represent the future. I don’t care about people who are almost a hundred years old,” he says, apparently referring to someone in the Palestinian leadership. “I care about the future of both Israel and Palestine.”
“But these children are beholden to their leaders, whether you like it or not,” I remind him.
“That’s why their leaders need to be subjected to pressure. If I were an advisor to Netanyahu, I would tell him to go to the Palestinian Authority and say that he wants to sit down with them. This is not weakness, it’s strength. Let him sit down with Abbas and work everything out from A to Z. We need a man like President Jimmy Carter, who, incidentally, is my very good friend.”
“What are your thoughts on the economic aspects of the peace plan that was proposed by Mr. Kushner in Bahrain?”
“It’s a step in the right direction. I’m not going to say anything negative about a person who is trying to do something positive for both sides. At the end of the day, though, only the parties involved can resolve their issues because they are the ones feeling the pain of the conflict. They don’t need mediation. We don’t want a Donald Trump or a Tony Blair to interfere. We want the Israelis to get together with the Palestinians and solve their problems.”
“With regard to the covert cooperation going on between Israel and the Gulf nations, do you think it will continue regardless of whether or not there is peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?” I inquire.
“There’s no proof, of course, but that’s the perception. But we really want to see these relationships going public. Prime Minister Netanyahu, or whoever else is elected, should communicate with the heads of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and say, ‘We want the world to know about our diplomatic relations and start having a commercial relationship, as well.’”
“But Netanyahu is already doing his part,” I argue. “When Donald Trump visited Israel, Netanyahu greeted him on the tarmac and declared that just as the American president had flown directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, he hoped that one day an Israeli prime minister would be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh. Netanyahu also made an official visit to Oman last year.”
“As the Americans say, talk is cheap,” Al Habtoor says with a laugh. “We want [Netanyahu] to announce that he wants peace. That’s what King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia said when they announced the Arab Peace Initiative, but it was rejected by Israel.”
“You want him to agree to anything they say in order to make peace?” I ask.
“I hate this word ‘peace.’ Everyone is always talking about ‘peace.’ We need to have a relationship. We have to be friends. We have to do business with each other.”
“And this is separate from the Palestinian issue?” I ask.
“We have to take [the Palestinian issue] out of the picture. Arabs and Jews are first cousins.”
“The children of Abraham.”
“Exactly. It’s stupid for first cousins to be fighting. With all due respect to President Trump, the only solution is to sit down together and work out our differences. I once attempted to organize a conference for the Israelis and the Palestinians with the help of President Jimmy Carter, but it never worked out because he suffered a fall.”
“How is he feeling now?” I ask.
“He’s better, despite some recent setbacks.”
“President Carter’s brain cancer was treated by cutting-edge Israeli technology, you know,” I say.
“A lot of people go to Israel for treatment. They have the best doctors.”
“Did you attend the conference in Bahrain? I know you’re very involved in the so-called peace process.”
“No. I was invited, but I was in London at the time. My wife was in the hospital and I couldn’t attend.”
“Would you consider coming to Israel for some face-to-face meetings?”
“I was invited many times, the last time by the Israeli minister of communications, who invited me on Twitter,” he says with a smile. “I’d be willing to go, but I’d like to see a little progress there first.”
“Why don’t you be the one to make it happen?” I ask, surprised by his hesitation.
“We have people there already,” he explains.
“Really? Who?” I inquire.
“My friends. Some are there for business and others for medical reasons. I don’t want to mention names, but we’ve got some high-level people there.”
“Do you have any idea when there will be open diplomatic relations?” I ask.
“It should happen quickly, but we also have to solve the problem of the Palestinians.”
“But you said it’s a separate issue,” I counter.
“It is, but it still has to be solved. There are some people in this region of the world who get very upset whenever I write about having diplomatic relations with Israel. What? With Zionists? I get a lot of positive feedback from both Israelis and Arabs, but we still have to make some progress for the Palestinians.”
“And you believe that will help the relationship between Israel and the countries of the GCC?” I ask.
“One hundred percent. The GCC is ready—that I can say for sure. As a businessman, I can feel it.”
“Have you spoken to the leader of Dubai about it?” I ask.
“No. I haven’t spoken to anybody, but I can sense it.”
I move the conversation away from politics. “You are a very successful businessman,” I tell him. “Do you have any advice for others?”
“Sir,” he says, “in my opinion, everything has to do with something the English call ‘discipline’ but what I call the ‘constitution of G-d.’ By that I mean doing everything on schedule, from sunrise to sunset. A person should eat dinner early, go to sleep early and wake up early. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning. I pray, eat breakfast with my family, and sometimes even play a game of tennis before I arrive at the office at 6:30. It makes me feel energized. That’s the key to success. You have to work. You have to produce.”
“I understand that your children work with you in the business,” I say.
“I watched an interview with your son Mohammed. He said that he started off at the very bottom of the company and worked his way up.”
“He also said that you were very strict,” I continue.
“Yes,” he replies with a nod.
“And that you fired him a few times!”
“Yes,” he says matter-of-factly. “I fire everybody, especially my children.”
“Do you take them back afterward?” I pry.
He thinks for a minute. “If they’re disciplined, yes. But if they are useless, I kick them out.”
“It’s all about discipline for you.”
“Yes,” he agrees.
Mr. Al Habtoor then rises from his seat and leads me across the huge room to an area where several comfortable couches are arranged in a semicircle.
“Your office is very beautiful,” I say as he gestures for me to take a seat. He then cracks open a copy of his autobiography and writes a short inscription before handing it to me.
“Thank you!” I tell him. “I’m going to read it from cover to cover.”
Mr. Al Habtoor smiles and suddenly looks me in the eye. “How old are you?” he asks. “You look very young.”
“Twenty-five,” I reply.
“You are a very knowledgeable young man,” he states.
I thank him for his vote of confidence.
“When are you going back to New York?” he asks as he stands up, signaling the end of our meeting.
“Tomorrow,” I tell him.
“Have a safe trip,” he says, shaking my hand. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” he calls after me as I walk toward the door.
“Or maybe in Israel,” I suggest.
I turn around just as the doors close, but not before I manage to catch Mr. Al Habtoor’s smile, which seems to say, “Maybe one day.”