Editor’s Note: Natalie Gochnour, David Eccles School of Business Associate Dean and Deseret News contributor, traveled with a delegation of business and community leaders on a trade mission led by the World Trade Center Utah to Israel and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Here is an insider’s look at what occurred on the trade mission in the sixth of a six-part series.
I returned from Israel and the United Arab Emirates mentally and physically exhausted from the demanding schedule, 10-hour time difference, related sleep challenges and roughly 32 hours of flight time. It was an ambitious endeavor involving 64 people, five tracks, three countries (Utah Senate President Stuart Adams met with Utah companies in Qatar) and approximately 100 meetings as far as 7,800 miles away from Salt Lake City.
Thanks to a significant amount of advanced planning, the trade mission did all the important things extremely well. At the top of the list was delivering value for Utah businesses that seek to grow their presence in this region of the world. The third-party validation that comes from the “seal of Utah,” its leaders and the reputation of the United States is a model that works.
I’m also proud of our elected leaders and their staff who represented Utah so well during the diplomatic and public policy portion of the trip. I observed and participated in dozens of conversations all focused on how this experience can improve the lives of Utahns. Utah is successful because Utahns work hard and our leaders care. This care was evident throughout the trade mission.
Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox made all Utahns proud as they represented our state with President Isaac Herzog of Israel and other senior government and business leaders in Israel and UAE with professionalism, dignity and grace. During the visit to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi I admired the way the Coxes respected the local culture and shared Utah’s goodness with the people for whom this sacred edifice means so much.
Gov. Cox told the delegation on the first night in Jerusalem that we came with humble hearts to learn. In addition to serving Utah businesses, this was a time of learning for Utah policymakers.
Here are some of the lessons I learned.
The inescapable beauty of people from all lands
We live in a divided and, at times, mean world. Too often we unfairly characterize people, call people names and demonstrate contempt rather than love for people with different life experiences and traditions.
You could argue the epicenter of conflict in our world has been the Middle East. And yet, the people we interacted with were gracious, peace-loving, faith-promoting and kind. I found myself saying in both countries, “I could live here.” House Speaker Brad Wilson went so far as to say, “This has blown me away.” He said the sense of community was almost palpable.
Culture meets modernity
This was my second visit to Israel and first visit to the UAE. Call me naïve, but I was not expecting the UAE to be so modern, friendly and familiar. Yes, Dubai is other worldly, but it’s also welcoming, fun and visionary.
I accompanied Cox on his diplomatic visits in Abu Dhabi, the political capital of the UAE. In the first meeting, the senior UAE official said, “We want people to thrive. We love peace. We are always warm and smiling.” This sentiment matched the message I saw on signs throughout the Emirates that said, “Welcome to where you belong.”
The health minister told us, “There are no borders. We can bring East and West together here. The whole system is dynamic and open.” The normalization of relationships between Israel and the UAE through the Abraham Accords signals even more openness, collaboration and innovation in the future. Keep an eye on these two countries.
Interfaith magic and holy envy
The opening declaration of the Abraham Accords reads: “We encourage efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity.”
The delegation reflected and each of the meetings projected interfaith respect, dialogue and common ground. It was beautiful to observe the warm heartedness and peaceable spirit that emanated from Rabbi Sam Spector of Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami synagogue, Avais Ahmed from the Utah Muslim Civic League, and Gary and Debbie Porter from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who were all on the trip.
The interfaith magic was a recurring theme in meetings, at an interfaith roundtable hosted by Utah’s Deseret Management Corporation, and at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, where ancient religious texts — the Pentateuch, four gospels in Coptic and a section from the Quran — were on full display adjacent to each other. I found myself feeling plenty of “holy envy” from the inspiration I received from faiths other than my own.
The value of collaboration
In Israel, we heard the simple and profound words of Shimon Peres, “Two men are more than two, and one is less than one.” Collaboration was on full display during this trade mission stretching from the collaborative spirit reflected in the Abraham Accords all the way to the collaboration between the public and private sector and Utah’s executive and legislative branches of government.
Cox said involving legislators was by design. The two branches have to work together to prevent and solve problems.
Water wise monitoring, pricing and education
Israel is widely recognized among the best water innovators, planners and managers in the world. The water officials spoke about minimizing the cross-subsidization of water across uses in a closed system. One Israeli official quipped, “In God we trust, in all others we monitor.” Another said, “We let the prices talk” and “measure every single drop.”
Speaking about their water-respecting culture and the education and conservation ethos another said, “We talk about (water conservation) all the time. It’s part of our culture here. Children teach children.” Utah would do well to learn from Israel’s water success.
Innovation policy instead of industrial policy
The vice president of strategy for the Israeli Innovation Authority told us, “We do innovation policy, not industrial policy.” The statement shot through me like an electric shock. It was a stark reminder of the proper role of government.
As a respecter of markets, I’m not a fan of government investing in industries — what many people refer to as picking winners and losers. That’s the market’s job and I think there is considerable evidence the market does it better than government.
Government intervention, however, is justified where markets fall short, such as R&D spending. Research and innovation spending are a classic positive externality. They create positive spillover effects for others. Without government intervention, the market will underinvest in the socially optimum amount. I encourage state leaders to focus on innovation policy, not industrial policy.
Regarding what I learned about regulatory policy — I can sum this up in one quote shared by a health professional. “It’s not about deregulation, it’s about regulation based on evidence.” Wise counsel.
Utah looks to the future with big dreams
Utah does many things well. When Carlos Braceros, director of the Utah Department of Transportation, explained the collaboration that goes into Utah’s long-range transportation plan and the planning horizon stretching out 30 years, you could hear a vocal expression of “wow.” It was nice to see that we were sharing our strengths with them.
If I had to pick a dominant theme from all of the meetings, meals, tours, presentations, side conversations and interpersonal interactions it would be best said through a sentiment Peres expressed in his later years: “I didn’t dream big enough. Always dream big.” Keep in mind this was a man who was in public service for 70 years, led a country not once, but twice, and landed a Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions. His life was a journey of making the impossible possible and yet he yearned for even bigger dreams.
Utah, Israel and UAE are no places for small dreams. We are small, might and now, more than ever, friends.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.