Daily Star, Beirut
Council created to boost U.S.-Arab trade
New body will work to fully open region’s markets to American firms
By Daniel Epps
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, July 09, 2005
BEIRUT: Arab countries established a new body to boost trade with the United States, Arab business leaders and U.S. officials announced. The group, the Middle East and North Africa Council of the American and Chamber of Commerce (AmCham MENA) will work to fully open the region to U.S. trade and encourage badly-needed economic reform.
Free trade agreements (FTAs) between MENA countries and the U.S. are a major goal of the new council. Carl Dawson, executive director of AmCham Morocco, spoke of the benefits of a proposed FTA between Morocco and the U.S., saying Morocco could act as a "gateway to the Middle East, Europe, and Africa" for American firms.
U.S. President George W. Bush has said he hopes to create a free-trade zone in the Middle East by 2013. This week, Bahrain’s Parliament approved an agreement with the U.S. that eliminates most tariffs and duties between the two countries.
The new council is the result of a "Memorandum of Understanding" signed by the AmChams of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco at a gathering of business leaders and diplomats at the Habtoor Grand Hotel in Beirut Friday.
The council’s dual purpose is "improving relations between the regional countries involved, and creating new and stronger ties with the U.S." said Salim Zeenni, President of AmCham Lebanon. He said the new council would play a "pivotal role in strengthening trade and economic ties between the U.S. and [the MENA] region."
Zeenni named as the council’s goals and values "commitment to freedom of trade, opening of Middle Eastern markets, protection of intellectual property rights, and international agreements such as the WTO."
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Dibble and U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman represented the American government at the press conference. Dibble read a brief letter by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Guiterrez, in which he said he was "encouraged" by the group’s efforts and congratulated the signatories for "making your dreams a reality."
Feltman praised the council’s efforts, but reminded the group that there was much more work to be done. Focusing on Lebanon, he insisted that "there must be a change in the way business is conducted" in the country, warning that "lack of economic opportunity represents the most potent poison that could kill democratic reform."
The ambassador criticized the lack of women in Lebanese business and politics, saying "tradition and discrimination block opportunity" and that women’s "creativity, energy, and talent" are wasted when they are denied a chance to use them.
Feltman promised the members of the Lebanese-American Chamber of Commerce that the U.S. would "work with you, and with the people of Lebanon, to achieve the independence, democracy, stability and prosperity you desire and deserve."
In addition to many leading figures from the Middle Eastern business world, MP Ghassan Moukheiber and Iraqi Ambassador to Lebanon Hussein Dirar attended the conference.