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Opportunity Is Knocking in Casablanca : Mideast: Japanese, European and U.S. businessmen meet counterparts from more than 60 countries.

October 31, 1994|From Reuters

CASABLANCA, Morocco — While the politicians made headlines Sunday, nearly 2,000 businessmen at a Middle East and North Africa economic conference swapped cards and discussed the future of a region at peace for the first time in half a century.

The purpose of the three-day conference, opened Sunday by Morocco's King Hassan II, is to give potential investors a chance to meet the political movers and shakers in the Middle East and North Africa.

They have come in droves. Japanese, European and U.S. businessmen registered for the unprecedented event for a chance to meet officials and experts from more than 60 countries gathered in Morocco's financial hub.

The sight of George Vassiliou, former president of Cyprus, embracing PLO leader Yasser Arafat in a hotel lobby encapsulated the mood of the conference.

"This meeting is unique in that such a big number of people representing the business community of the world are meeting with political leaders," Vassiliou said..

"The political leaders are giving their blessing to the whole process, and it opens the doors to everything else," he added.

President Clinton, who with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin is co-sponsoring the conference, told attendees in a message that he saw the conference as an important forum for discussing the region's economic prospects and promoting business and investment opportunities.

"It will also make a significant contribution to advancing the peace process," Clinton said.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Casablanca with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and eight other Israeli cabinet ministers, wants to ensure that Israel gets a significant chunk of the billions investors are itching to sink into the region, a market of more than 150 million people.

He also wants to find new markets for Israeli goods after decades of isolation.

"Israel should not remain an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty," Peres told reporters after a series of meetings before the main conference at the royal palace in Casablanca.

"The Israelis are looking at markets to export their products, and the Arabs are looking for investments," Vassiliou said.

"We see a lot of potential for privatization," said banker Max Burger-Calderon of the corporate finance group Apax Partners & Co.

He said that in telecommunications, the fastest-growing sector in the region, Morocco needs investments of $2 billion in the next two years, and that Israel is looking for $1 billion.

Christian Falkowski, who heads the European Union's technical division for the Mediterranean region, said the purpose of the conference is to educate businessmen in the language of politics.

"We are just starting to coordinate. The purpose of this meeting is to mobilize the business community and tell them what is happening on the political front," Falkowski said.

After the opening ceremony, the conference will break into working groups on a wide range of issues, from sharing water resources to energy, banking, finance and industry.

Asked what he expects from Casablanca, Rabin said:

"We created an atmosphere of peace in the region and now we want to exploit it."

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