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Watershed Event in the Mideast : Casablanca economic summit could eventually boost prospects for peace

November 04, 1994

The foremost achievement of the Middle East-North Africa Economic Summit, held in Casablanca this week, is that it took place at all.

For the first time, leaders of government and business from most of the Arab world and Israel, as well as from several score other countries, came together publicly to evaluate opportunities for economic cooperation across the great band of states stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to the sheikdoms of the Arabian Peninsula. Out of all this, in time, are expected to come a regional development bank, a board to coordinate tourism and a multinational chamber of commerce. The aim is to provide economic underpinnings for the peace that's unfolding as Israelis and Arabs resolve their political and territorial differences. Just as postwar institutionalized economic cooperation played a key role in submerging Western Europe's old rivalries and suspicions, so could growing economic linkage buttress prospects for a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East.

Political stability in the area, according to the World Bank's Caio Koch-Weser, requires that per capita income grow by at least 3% a year, a tall order given recent trends in those states not blessed with large oil reserves. But there's no shortage of ideas for projects to boost growth and living standards: international railways and roads, gas and water pipelines between even distant countries, linked electricity grids, shared airports and harbors, joint ventures in agriculture and manufacturing.

The readiness to cooperate evidenced in Casablanca does not by itself guarantee a rosy economic future. The regional development bank, financing from which would be essential to launch many of the most ambitious projects, has its opponents and is at best many months away from realization. More fundamentally, the very idea of cooperation between Arab states and Israel remains anathema to the area's radicals--Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya. The Casablanca conference nonetheless marks a watershed. It has given a clear sense of what normal relations lead to. It has shown that a peace dividend that could better the lives of all the peoples of the region is a real possibility.

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