Israel branches out to HK in strategic move
TO the Israelis, the Far East is very far.
Prohibited from flying over its hostile neighbours, planes heading for Asia have to fly to Europe before heading to the Far East because no direct flights are available.
Such was the route Amram Lador took when he flew to Hong Kong recently to open the representative office for the largest banking group in Israel, Bank Hapoalim.
After considering an office in Southeast Asia for a long time, the bank finally decided to make its move this year.
The political scene is changing and so is the bank's expansion strategy.
With about US$39.4 billion in assets and $1.8 billion in equity, the bank has 356 branches in Israel and 17 abroad.
It has just added the Hong Kong office as part of its worldwide branch map, marking a significant strategic move.
Surrounded by less hostile neighbours, the Middle East can easily become an attractive market to outsiders.
Most of the cars running on Israeli roads are mostly imported from South Korea and Japan.
Its gross domestic product reached an enviable 6.7 per cent growth this year and is estimated to be 4.7 per cent next year.
Lured by the trade potential between Israel and Asian countries, which jumped 25 per cent this year to $2 billion, the bank was further heartened by the establishment of diplomatic relation with China and India in 1992.
Although full diplomatic relations with Malaysia and Indonesia are still pending, the inclination of Israeli industries to look for Asian markets prompted the bank to take action.
'Israeli companies have found that their traditional markets in Europe and US do not grow as fast as countries in the Asian region,' said Mr Lador.
These companies are selling their expertise primarily in high-technology areas such as advanced irrigation systems, printing and telecommunications.
However, Mr Lador's job involves not just marketing for the bank, but marketing the country as well.
It takes more than just a written statement to explain why the opening of a branch recently in Sheik Hussein Bridge near the Jordanian border was such a milestone in the bank's history.
Nor is it easy to tell outsiders why seeing the traffic sign 'Jordan - 20 miles ahead' on an Israeli highway leading to Jordan pleases passing drivers.
'It is a sign that Israel is no longer an isolated country in the Middle East, but part of it,' said Mr Lador.
As the country is edging forward in establishing more cordial relationship with its neighbouring countries, it is looking beyond the Middle East for expansion.
But the image of religious fanatics fighting relentless wars over endless disputes cannot be easily erased.
As a representative of Bank Hapoalim, Mr Lador will have to try harder than just following the trade flow.