Hassan plays host to new Middle East

A PENCHANT for grandeur once led King Hassan of Morocco to raise to the heavens a great marble-clad mosque on the Atlantic coast at Casablanca. From its gleaming minaret a green laser beam points to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, at the far end of the Arab world.

It is with similar vision that the King plays host today to 200 political leaders and 1,300 businessmen from some 40 countries, gathered in Casablanca for the first Middle East/North Africa economic summit.

The gathering is billed as an unprecedented opportunity to generate a new partnership between government and business in the Middle East.

'An area from the Atlantic to the Gulf would integrate 200-300 million consumers, an opportunity that no major global company could afford to miss,' said Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum. 'Today's global economy is based on regions; the only region still fragmented is the Middle East and North Africa.'

The timing of the conference could hardly appear more auspicious.

Last Wednesday, a formal peace treaty between Israel and Jordan put an end to 46 years of war; and on Thursday, Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit Syria in two decades. The fact that Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are to attend the conference underlines the multiplying signs of economic contact between Israel and its old foes.

But the reasons why the Arab world has languished amid division and war for half a century are not likely to disappear as the result of a large amount of business-class travel and conference rhetoric. The diplomacy of peace remains fragile. PLO leader Yasser Arafat is waging a battle against the Islamic fundamentalist movement, Hamas, which derides his agreement with Israel. In Lebanon, Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri is pressing ahead with the reconstruction of Beirut, but the Iranian-backed militia, Hizbollah, still holds sway in the south of the country.

The secular Egyptian government faces a violent campaign by fundamentalists, which has halved its income from tourism. Libya remains an international pariah. And in King Hassan's neighbour, Algeria, security forces are locked in a vicious battle against Islamic insurgents.

This is not the most promising landscape against which to talk of emerging stockmarkets and foreign investment. And financial reformers have failed to halt an outflow of regional capital, due in large part to a lack of confidence in the ability of Arab states to set up functioning free market economies.

The pool of Arab offshore savings has been estimated at dollars 650bn (pounds 420bn), most of it invested in the West and Japan. The overseas assets held by the 22 members of the Arab League actually exceed their combined gross domestic product by dollars 200bn. Only 10 Arab countries have official stock exchanges, ranging from the sleepy Egyptian bourse to the small but dynamic new market in Jordan.

None the less, the risks can also generate opportunity. The summit has a highly specific agenda. Some 200 projects are up for individual discussion.

The European Union plans later this year to create a free trade area embracing southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The political impetus derives from an understanding that the Arab countries must be brought into Europe's economic orbit and a fear of disaster should poverty bring about the collapse of existing governments. The average income in all Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean is less than dollars 1,000 (pounds 625) a year, a fraction of Israel's.

'There is a common feeling among Arab and Israeli businessmen, as well as among Jewish businessmen from outside the region, that economic prosperity is the best guarantee for the peace process,' King Hassan said last week.

He speaks in terms that would gladden the heart of any Conservative minister, lauding privatisations and a shrinking state sector as key measures to advance the economies. 'Private capital is not only essential from the economic point of view but it is also vital for political stability,' he said.

On the conference agenda is an ambitious plan to double food production in the region within 10 years, bringing Israeli expertise in irrigation and crop development to the vast and under-exploited Arab agricultural market.

Of 490 million acres of land in Arab countries at present under cultivation, little more than one-quarter is fully exploited. Arab League countries last year spent more than dollars 20bn on food imports.

Even more grandiose ideas have captured the imagination of planners in a way unseen since the European rush to create colonies at the end of the 19th century. One plan envisages a rail link from Cairo to Casablanca; Colonel Gaddafi has already signed an initial contract for the line to cross Libya.

Other plans have been drawn up to revive the network of railways from southern Turkey to the Gulf and the Suez Canal that operated before the days of Lawrence of Arabia.

But the most impressive projects involve the Middle East's most precious commodity after oil: water, and the politics of water supply, have long been identified as a key source of conflicts, provoking disputes between Syria and Turkey and between Israel and all its neighbours.

Now the Israeli Energy Ministry has revived a plan for canals linking the Dead Sea with the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. They would generate cheap electric power by exploiting the Dead Sea's location at the lowest point on earth, 1,300ft below sea level. The energy would power desalination plants to provide fresh water for agricultural development; benefits could flow to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.

Egypt, Jordan and the PLO have also discussed with Israel the possibility of creating a merged electricity grid. All but unnoticed, the momentum generated by the 1991 Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid has given birth to a series of discussions about co-operation in transport, agriculture, transport and tourism projects.

The idea was always to put in place a mechanism that could begin to operate once formal treaties had been signed. That mechanism may soon be ready. All it needs is a final turn of the key - but that may yet prove the most difficult political task. It would be a brave investor who ventures into the new Middle East.

(Map omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments