House of Saud Mulls Building Hotel on Tel Aviv Beachfront

By Orly Halpern

Published March 16, 2007, issue of March 16, 2007.
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Jerusalem - It is unclear how the elaborate courtship between Israeli and Saudi government officials will play out in advance of the upcoming Arab League Summit in Riyadh. But some Jewish and Arab businessmen are already looking to tie the knot on a deal that could lead to the development of a Saudi-financed hotel in Tel Aviv.

Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud has expressed personal interest in building a seaside hotel on a historic lot in the Mediterranean city, according to an Israeli architect involved in the potential project.

“It’s the place for a hotel,” said Israel Gudovich, a former chief engineer of the Tel Aviv municipality. “Otherwise [Al-Waleed] wouldn’t have entered this project.”

Al-Waleed has already chosen his favorite architect, the famous Iraqi-born and London-based Basil Al-Bayati, who will work with Gudovich on creating a luxury hotel that could ostensibly integrate Western and Islamic motifs.

Walid Abulafia, a member of the wealthy Israeli Arab family from Jaffa that owns the property, would not comment on the Saudi connection. “I can’t talk about it now,” he told the Forward. “It’s too early, and businesses don’t succeed through talking.”

All that Abulafia, the 43-year-old businessman who is leading his family’s hotel development project, would say is that he sees the hotel as a joint effort between Arabs and Jews.

“This is the number-one location in the State of Israel,” Abulafia said, “and our dream is to make it the best hotel in the country, a gate to the city and a symbol of coexistence, so that in 100 years from now, people will say, ‘This was built by Jews and Arabs together.’”

The project on the beachfront land at the end of Allenby Street and across from the Opera House was started more than two years ago by the Abulafia family. The main building located on the lot is historic, and its facade must be preserved because it was built before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and stands out architecturally because of its decorative Islamic-style arches. The lot is located on a central Tel Aviv beachside, but the area is poor and the building is run down. For years, it has mainly been a home to brothels and kiosks. That seems likely to change.

According to Gudovich, Abulafia met with Al-Waleed last month. The meeting took place shortly after Jewish Canadian luxury hotel owner Isadore Sharpe agreed to sell — for $3.8 billion, debts included — the Four Seasons luxury hotel chain he founded in 1960 to the Saudi prince and to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Al-Waleed and Gates will each own 45% of the luxury chain if two-thirds of the shareholders agree to the sale at a meeting next month.

The Saudi prince’s business, Kingdom Holding Company, issued a quasi-denial of the Tel Aviv business venture. In response to an e-mail query from the Forward asking if the prince was involved in a deal to build a hotel in Tel Aviv, KHC spokesman Mohammed Fahad Al-Nafjan prepared a statement that read: “We at KHC clarify that the information in a recent article in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, about a hotel project in Tel Aviv, published on February 15, 2007, is false.” But the spokesman did not specify which information in Yediot’s article was false.

KHC added that it “confirms its commitment to support the Middle East peace process and will base its investment strategies in accordance with the international community’s ambition to achieve long lasting peace in the region.”

In the end, the Tel Aviv hotel might not be the only one in the Jewish state with Saudi ownership. The prince already owned 23% of the Four Seasons shares before the buyout. Five years ago, the luxury chain began plans to build a hotel in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood. Many local residents, however, oppose the plan, not because of its Saudi ownership but because they feared that the proposed 11-story hotel-condominium complex will ruin the look of the neighborhood. Others oppose the creation of condominiums because it means less space for tourists and fewer employees needed at the hotel.

Even if the Four Seasons does not decide to build a hotel on the Abulafia structure, some other five-star luxury hotel will, Gudovich said. But the Israeli Jewish architect hopes that a deal will be signed with the Four Seasons so that he can work with Bayati on the hotel’s interior. “This project really fascinates and excites me. I knew [Bayati’s] work from journals. He’s an architect from another world. He works in Dubai, Morocco. I think it will be very, very interesting for me. I saw his style — an integration of Islamic architecture with modern architecture.”

At the end of this month, Gudovich will travel to London to discuss the plans for the hotel with Bayati, “and maybe to meet Al-Waleed.” Bayati is scheduled to come to Israel during Passover, Gudovich said, to see with his own eyes the old building that he is slated to turn into a fabulous luxury hotel.

At this point, the plans for the hotel have already received municipal approval and now await district approval. Abulafia plans to preserve and restore the facade, while adding on more than 20 floors. He hopes he will be able to build a 20,000-meter complex, which will be part hotel, part apartments and part offices.

The Abulafia family engages in not only business — most famously through its bakeries — but also in philanthropy and the promotion of peace. For years, the Abulafias have worked for coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa. They established the Abulafia Foundation for Coexistence, which gives scholarships to Arab and Jewish students from Jaffa so that they can study at Tel Aviv University. The family also built a synagogue, and bought an ambulance for Jaffans. Abulafia’s office employs Jews, Muslims and Christians.

“Thank God I have many businesses that help the Jews and Arabs,” said the entrepreneur, whose oldest of five children is in her second year at the Wharton School of Business. “I want [people abroad] to learn from here how to coexist.”

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