Spanish crusade in the Middle East: Business delegation in Israel looks for investment potential in the occupied territories

THE 100-strong entourage that arrived in Israel with the King and Queen of Spain this week did not comprise mere courtiers. Most were senior Spanish bankers and businessmen, part of a crusade to exploit opportunities in the Gaza Strip, Jericho and any other occupied Arab territory that Israel may yet cede.

This week's visit by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia is seen in Spain as historic in more ways than one. Apart from setting the seal on a new friendship with Israel half a millennium after his ancestors expelled all Jews from Spain, the monarch is viewed as the spearhead of an important investment thrust in the Middle East.

The Spanish delegation read like a who's who of bankers and business chiefs, led by Jose Maria Cuevas, head of the Employers' Federation, and Guillermo de la Dehesa, chairman of the Spanish Chambers of Commerce. They want to beat the rest of the world to the investment potential of the territories from which Israel will withdraw under the September peace agreement.

The Spaniards are interested in building factories, roads, houses and schools, as well as developing other infrastructure projects such as telecommunications, according to industrial sources. In addition to Gaza and Jericho, the delegates see the area as a potential base for involvement in other Arab markets.

If the king was the spearhead, an advance party had already been sent out 10 days earlier when one of Spain's leading bankers, Mario Conde, head of Banco Espanol de Credito (Banesto), took the spotlight at the Jerusalem Business Conference. Mr Conde and his friend Shlomo Ben Ami, former Israeli ambassador to Spain, were the driving forces behind a new development consortium, unofficially known as Salam 2,000, to finance development projects in the newly autonomous Palestinian territories.

Banesto, Koor Industries of Israel, the Moroccan holding company Omnium-Nord-Africain (ONA), and a group of Palestinian businessmen headed by Jaweed al- Ghussein agreed to put up dollars 15m each as initial capital and said they hoped to raise up to dollars 150m more from US investors.

Mr al-Ghussein, head of the Palestine National Fund, is the father of Mona Bauwens, whose friendship with David Mellor was one of the factors in the former Heritage Secretary's resignation from the Cabinet.

Mr Conde and other Spanish bankers and businessmen have been on the inside track of potential investment since Spain hosted Middle East peace talks two years ago.

'An enormous market is opening up before us if we are capable of taking heed of it and engaging in it,' Mr Conde wrote recently. Without any hint of irony, he cited 'our historic ties with Arabs and Jews' as the reason why Spain should be at the forefront of Middle East peace and reconstruction efforts. The fact that King Juan Carlos's ancestors drove the Moors from Europe and expelled all Jews at around the same time now seems forgotten.

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