Getting on a plane is part and parcel of my work as spokesperson for a number of umbrella organisations in the international diamond industry and trade. In past May, I traveled to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, to work at the 37th World Diamond Congress. It is a biennial, joint event of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses (WFDB) and the International Diamond Manufacturers Association (IDMA).
Dubai is a kind of Manhattan on steroids in the desert, located on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, opposite Iran. In the past decade, it has become one of the most important trading and distribution centres for, mostly, rough diamonds. The city is also home to Dubai Diamond Exchange, one of the 30 diamond bourses affiliated to the WFDB.
In 2016, some 90 percent of the diamond industry and trade is dominated by India. The days that Amsterdam and Antwerp were the world’s undisputable cutting and trading centers, from the end of the 19th century until the last quarter of the 20th century, are long gone. While Antwerp still leads in the global rough diamond trade, there are few cutters left. In Israel, there are less than a thousand people involved in manufacturing. In India, however, millions of people are involved in the processes of diamond cutting and polishing. London, too, has lost a lot of its diamond glamour, as the world’s leading diamond mining company, De Beers, has moved its epicentre from the UK to Gaberone in Botswana. But the diamond business in Dubai keeps growing.
“I always had the impression that the diamond trade was very much a Jewish profession?” a friend of my asked me recently. I was happy to tell him that Jews are still very active – and visible – in the international diamond business sector. The presidents of the diamond bourses of Amsterdam, Antwerp, London, Miami, Milan, Ramat Gan, Sydney and Singapore are Jewish. And so are a significant number of the 15,000 or so members of the diamond bourses worldwide.
This is also why, at the welcome reception that preceded the Congress’ Gala dinner at one of the super luxury hotels on Dubai’s Palm Island, I could easily count the heads with baseball caps and Panama hats, six or seven.
Baseball caps and Panama hats at a black-tie type of event? Of course, because who in his right mind would call attention to his Jewish identity in Dubai by wearing a kipa in public? Naturally, while for the ‘incrowd’ such a cap or hat is a ‘giveaway,’ to others it just looks a bit odd.
The driver of the limo who drove us from the diamond exchange in the Jumeirah Lake district to Palm Island told us he is a Christian. He said there is no lack of churches in Dubai, as there is a large, mostly Asian Christian community in the city. No, they had never encountered any problems in practicing their faith. “Our – beautiful – church is located in the mezzanine of an office building. But from the outside, you wouldn’t know there is church!” In the UAE, he continued, no cross or any other Christian symbols can be displayed in public. On my question if there were any synagogues in Dubai, he chuckled, “I don’t think so!”
Back to the reception. After getting a beer from the bar, a friend gestured me to follow him outside for a smoke. Beer in hand, I tried to exit the lobby toward the smoking area, but was stopped by a polite hotel employee. “Sorry Sir, no alcohol outside the hotel!”
While my Australian mate and I were chatting and smoking – evening was falling but the temperature still was some 35 degrees – a number of baseball caps and Panama hats came through the doors, accompanied by a security guard. The director of the Diamond Dealers Club of New York called out to me. “Yallah, Ya’akov, follow us, we need you, mincha, ma’ariv and three of us need to say kaddish!”
The security guard leads us away, to an adjacent restaurant that is filling up fast with early diners. He ushers us into a private dining room. The president of the London Diamond Bourse asks where north is, and then begins. Due to his Ashkenazi pronunciation and enormous speed, I quickly lose track, as do the Israeli and Belgian fellows who were dragged along as well. We alternatively look at each other and at our watches.
Next to us, in the restaurant, we see a guy with a guitar sit down on a bar stool and adjust his microphone.
“Starry, starry night,” he begins.
A minyan in Dubai, with live music.