Mideast, despite troubles, still lures business crowd 1,400 arrive in Cairo for economic meeting


CAIRO, Egypt -- In town for the Middle East economic conference, Baltimorean Peter A. Bowe planned a meeting that would have been unthinkable several years ago. The dredge manufacturer invited his former Israeli partner and the man's local agent in Egypt to discuss business opportunities in Jordan.

"The opportunity is greater than it's ever been," Bowe said yesterday on the opening day of the Cairo Middle East and North Africa Economic Conference.

The 3-year-old Middle East peace process made it possible for Bowe, president of Ellicott International, and his Arab and Israeli colleagues to meet in public. Troubles with that same peace process threatened to erode the advances so far. But American sponsors of the peace accords said the attendance of 1,400 business people at the Cairo conference shows how resilient peace can be.

"Business people have to look for the long term," said Nicholas Burns, a spokesman for U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. "They have to assess profitability. These people are voting with their feet. There are 1,400 people who paid to come here, who in effect are saying this is an important place that peace can be made solid at some point in the future."

The Cairo conference, the third since the signing of the peace accords, doesn't have the political profile of its predecessors. Egypt considered canceling the event to protest the hard-line policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has delayed implementing provisions of the peace agreement.

Instead, organizers focused on the economic aspects of peace. Rather than kings and heads of state in attendance, economic and foreign ministers arrived for the conference.

As Philip Lader, an official with the U.S. Small Business Administration, put it: "I'm here to talk business, not politics."

In his address to the conference, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spoke mainly about his country's economic reforms and improved business climate. But Mubarak, among the harshest critics of the new Israeli government, also reflected on the importance of a just peace.

"As long as a comprehensive peace on all tracks is not firmly and irreversibly established among us, we will not reap the full benefits of our economic integration," Mubarak told the opening session of the conference.

Christopher, making what could be one of his last visits to a region that has preoccupied him for the past four years, discussed the link between prosperity and peace. "We both understand that there can be no lasting peace for the Middle East without rising prosperity -- and that there can be no lasting prosperity in this region without a deepening peace."

From the entrepreneur's point of view, the politicians might learn from business. "I suggest we privatize the peace process," an Israeli businessman quipped to an Arab colleague.

More than 90 Israeli business executives are attending the conference. As they arrived in Cairo, a local Egyptian newspaper reported that the Federation of the Egyptian Chambers of Commerce urged its members to boycott Israel. Despite that, Yoram Blizovsky said he and his Israeli colleagues received a warm welcome from their Egyptian hosts. Israeli bank executive Shimon Ravidat isn't sure the political process will have some impact on the business climate. "At this stage I'm a little more doubtful because everyone is waiting to see what happens with the political process."

But many conference participants said business deals don't get made at meetings like this. Most said they came to Cairo to make new contacts, renew old ones and meet government officials who can turn a business ambition into reality.

"Jordan just named a new free zone director, and he's going to be here," said Robert C. Haywood, director of the World Export Processing Zones Association. "I want to make sure he knows who we are." Ira C. Lutzky, an executive with the Baltimore-based investment banking firm of Alex. Brown & Sons, sent letters of introduction to 22 potential customers in the Arab world. Thirteen of them asked to meet him.

Bowe, the Baltimore dredge manufacturer, had a new product for sale -- a vegetation-eating dredge, The Weedcat. He's been working on a deal with an Egyptian firm for more than a year.

Ellicott International's business dealings in Egypt predate the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Bowe sold his first dredge to an Israeli company in 1989, but he could not discuss the Israeli business deal with his Arab customers. Even though they were at peace, the relationship was strained.

Now, he's talking to a Jordanian company about a dredge it wants to use on the Dead Sea; it's the same kind of equipment that an Israeli company is using to break up salt chunks on its portion of the Dead Sea.

Peace is important in the area because businesses want to approach the Middle East as a region, Bowe said. If companies have to divide the region because of politics, "it becomes less attractive to them. All business people prefer stability."

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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