In southern Israel, a group of well-off Bedouin entrepreneurs is trying to help the community grow economically, reduce discrimination and improve education.
HURA — Crystal and gold chandeliers hang from the high ceiling at the entrance to Yaakub Abu al-Qiyan's home in the Bedouin town of Hura in Israel's southern Negev desert. The furniture in the living room, the curtains and even the teapots are adorned with gold as well.
Abu al-Quiyan was inspired by "a Jordanian palace," but says that most of the furnishings actually came from Egypt. Every step in the staircase is individually lit. There's a pool in the backyard and a Jacuzzi is under construction. From the window is a view of the tin shed that houses the neighbor's family.
He apologizes for the state of his palace. "The house is not yet finished," he says. "It cost me about $3 million."
He pulls out his smartphone to show two other throne-like chairs. "Just these chairs, which are still due to arrive from Egypt, cost $15,000 each." He points to the beautiful big wooden entrance door and says it will soon be replaced by another — gilded, of course. The kitchen will also soon be replaced, he says. And the curtains will be drawn by voice command.
Abu al-Qiyan, 42, is the owner of a contracting company that builds housing projects and public buildings in Bedouin villages. He also owns a human resources company specializing in construction, housekeeping and agriculture. He also boasts business and financial ties with the Palestinian Authority. Colleagues estimate that his yearly turnover is close 100 million shekel, or about $28 million.
The wealthy entrepreneur is married to two women. The first lives in a different house in Hura with their four children. The second lives with him here in the palace, along with their three small children. His sons Mohammad, 23, and Moussa,19, come to visit. They love the new house, but hate the village. They say it's boring, with no good places to hang out.
Hura cityscape — Romayan
Before moving to the palace Abu al-Qiyan lived with his second wife and their children in Meitar, an affluent Jewish town that also attracts wealthy Bedouins. Nowadays they divide their time between Hura and Meitar. "I wanted my small children to live a different life than in Hura, I was looking for a different environment," he says.
"Violence has spread in the community like a disease," Abu al-Qiyan adds. "It's because of the rural atmosphere. You can't get a good education here. There are no playgrounds. The kid comes home from school – where will he play? There aren't any sports areas or a swimming pool, nothing. And then they say that the Arab community is no good. It's because the government doesn't provide enough. It's like if you have a dog but you don't feed it, you just wave a piece of meat in front of it. One day it'll pounce on you."
At the same time, Abu al-Qiyan sees Hura as a way for the children to stay in touch with their roots. "To know that they're Arab Bedouins," he says.
I deserve a taste of the good life.
Of course most Bedouins don't live in palaces, as Abu al-Qiyan's critics point out. "When they see me they say, "Yaakub, you've become too Ashkenazi a Jew of European descent." And I tell them, "I'm a Bedouin. I've lived the life of the community. I've lived in a tent. I've lived in a shed. I've lived in a normal house. When I moved to Eilat further south to work, there were days when I didn't have any place to sleep. And now I live in a palace with a pool and a Jacuzzi. I've lived the life of a Bedouin. I'm not forgetting where I came from. But I also deserve to get a taste of the good life."
Abu al-Qiyan is a member of the Afak (horizon) Forum, a group of 32 Bedouin entrepreneurs whose businesses have an annual turnover of at least 10 million shekels (about $2.8 million). For some, the turnover is closer to 100 million shekels ($28 million), and in total they say they have a total turnover of about 500 million shekels ($140 million).
The group, established about six months ago, includes real-estate moguls, building contractors, recycling and infrastructure entrepreneurs, and transport company owners. Most of them are first-generation business owners who built their fortune from scratch.
They are unusual in their own community. But they're also considered extraordinary in Jewish society. These are the "Bedouin millionaires," and they face a unique set of problems, from the wide economic gap to neglect by the Israeli authorities, racism, violence, crime and polygamy. The group is also active on a variety of fronts to advance the community in general, and business in particular.
They are striving to establish commercial and industrial areas within Bedouin villages, a complex task given conflicting land ownership claims and territorial disputes. They're also looking to procure grants and better loan conditions from the state and the banks by creating an acquisition group; formulate a plan for philanthropic donations to the community; and advance their own private businesses, together and separately, by responding to tenders.
There are three committees working within the Forum that focus on bank loans, job creation and advancing tenders suitable for business in the community. They are organized and determined but are still at the beginning of the road and have not yet marked any real achievements. More time is needed, they say — for their own adjustment, but also for other changes.
Fahmi el-Oubra, owner of a company in Rahat (another Bedouin town) that transports agricultural produce, illustrates the complexity of the issues. "Last year we tried, three of us, to create a group that would build a big shopping mall in Rahat. But we failed," the 53-year-old father of eight explains. "When two other companies, Sodastream and Kargal, moved to the area, they received three-quarters of the sum they invested as a government grant. We also want that. The others get advantages, but we, the residents of the region, don't."
At a SodaStream plant in Israel — Photo: Nir Alon/ZUMA
Fahmi el-Oubra says that in just five years, Sodastream and Kargal have helped cut Rahat's unemployment rate in half, from about 21% in 2010 to 12% in 2016. With their shopping mall project, he and his partners hoped to add even more jobs. But they weren't offered the same financing advantages.
Ali al-Krenawi, also a Rahat resident, mentions another obstacle. He rents agricultural equipment to Kibbutzim, owns real estate and is the brother of Talal al-Krenawi, the mayor of Rahat. "It's hard to develop here when any time you want to buy land land, somebody comes and tells you, "This is my grandfather's land. He used to live here." So the matter goes back to the authorities and gets bogged again. We need to reach a land settlement for Bedouins in the south in order to open the villages to entrepreneurship. I hope this Forum will be able to help."
The only woman in the Forum is Yarona Ben-Shalom Richardson, a resident of Omer, who guides the forum and delicately balances the internal politics among the group's members. The Forum was established and financed by the Negev Development Authority and by MAOF, the economy ministry's operational branch for the advancement of small and medium-sized businesses.
They're low-tech, and we, here in Beersheva, will make them high-tech.
Jihad el-Oubra, also from Rahat, runs MAOF's activities related to the Bedouin community in the Negev. He lists a few of the internal obstacles they face. "It's not easy to unite a group of entrepreneurs from different sectors, different villages and, worst of all, different clans," the 46-year-old explains. "Sometimes there are disputes or simply lack of trust."
A leading members of the group, Khader Esheikh, is now creating the first Bedouin high-tech company and is dreaming of a large tourism project with famous Bedouin hospitality, camels, horses and olive groves. He comes from an entirely different field of work: He owns commercial buildings that he rents out in Beersheva and the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, and also a metal and mortar production plant. He's 57, married to two women and has 12 children. He grew up in Tel Sheva, one of the poorest towns in the country, a place where goats eat garbage strewn on the pavements.
"I signed a development agreement with General Electric and we'll develop a system for them that warns when parts of a car need to be replaced," Esheikh explains. "They're low-tech, and we, here in Beersheva, will make them high-tech. Bedouin software engineers will develop sensors and control and information programs. I'm very excited about this, it's never been done."
Nasuah Asna, at 39, is the Forum's youngest member. Like his colleagues, he is enthusiastic and driven by a sense of mission. A resident of the Bedouin town of Lakiya, he is the owner of an engineering and construction contracting company.
He talks about the Forum's contribution to the community, which he says is the reason he does not move to a Jewish town. "If we all move, who will stay? What good is it that my yard is all clean, but outside there's garbage strewn on the sidewalks? I have to fix things in our community so that my son will have an easier life."
He admits, though, that the issue of his children's integration in society is complex. "Being drafted into the army is a red line for me," Asna insists. "My son will not join the army in order to fight against his brethren in Gaza. That won't work. I can contribute to the community in which I live, to hospitals, but not to the army."