Officials, businesspeople discuss peace, oil prices, renewable energy, water, new opportunities
Washington — Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, as keynote speaker at the third U.S.-Arab Economic Forum, stressed the gravity of the current state of the world, engulfed in turmoil with oil prices reaching record prices and worsening scarcity of food resources.
Addressing around 400 business and political leaders representing 35 nations at the forum, which held opening sessions May 7, Moussa stressed that the U.S.-Arab relationship is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash among representatives of regimes.
He said the relationship has to forge ahead by building bridges among the people.
“Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a pivotal point in Arab—American relations,” Moussa said, expressing hope that the declared goal of creating a two- state solution by the current Bush administration will come to fruition by the end of the year.
He said that in order for that to happen, Israel must end its practices of changing the demographic map of the Occupied Territories, by freezing its settlements, removing outposts and roadblocks and ending the blockade on Gaza.
He did not, however, express optimism on the progress of peace since the Annapolis meetings six months ago, and called for a “realistic assessment” of the situation.
Moussa outlined the progress of the economies of oil-rich Gulf countries, saying that investments in their infrastructure have been wise and that for continued progress, education must be their top priority.
He cited the achievement of the 2005 Arab Free Trade Zone as a positive step that could achieve the goal of a common Arab market by the year 2020.
Chakib Khelil, Algeria’s Minister of Energy and Mining, and the current president of OPEC, appeared the second day of the forum to speak on a panel discussing the U.S.-Arab energy relationship.
He spoke about achievements in using solar energy and about privatization legislation in his country intended to create favorable conditions for international investment, but his comments were quickly forgotten when he faced a barrage of questions from reporters on record oil prices and Hillary Clinton’s comments describing OPEC as a cartel that needs to be broken.
“A cartel has a monopoly, and can control prices,” Khelil said, “and we are neither.”
“OPEC only represents about 40% of the world’s oil production. It was formed for one purpose and that is to anticipate the oil demands and provide adequate supplies,” he said. “The spike in the oil prices has been due to a weak dollar and a weak U.S. economy, where Wall Street finds a haven in commodities for their funds. It has nothing to do with OPEC and OPEC has no control over it… Nobody called OPEC a cartel when the oil was trading at seven and eight dollars.”
Khelil said that Algeria is positioned to be the leader in the Arab world in employing renewable energy technologies and that a current power plant built in cooperation with a Spanish company will be producing 150 megawatts of electricity using solar and natural gas energy.
He said the Algerian Sahara has potential to become a major source of solar thermal power generation, and that the country currently has thirteen experimental villages using solar panels to generate their electricity.
Other topics included renewable energy, water resources and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. One speech given by Wael Al-Mazeedi, CEO and chairman of BTU Industries, outlined the activities of his $1 billion venture capital company, which invests in electrical power generation in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Tunisia and U.A.E. He spoke about the company’s vision to utilize solar and hydro energy resources to help reduce reliance on coal and gas.
Another session focused on water in the Middle East.
Dr. Radwan Al-Weshah, a regional hydrologist and program specialist with UNESCO in Cairo, outlined how critical the water supply is in countries like Jordan, where the water reaches people once a week — once every two weeks in the summer.
His pointed out mismanagement of available resources in addition to scarcity.
In Jordan, he said, irrigation efficiency doesn’t exceed 60 percent and only about 53 percent of pumped water gets paid for.
He said the root of the problem is a lack of vision to provide long-term solutions, with efforts spent entirely on crisis management.
Al-Weshah said the solution is two-fold: Better resource management and finding the political will to implement real solutions in desalination of sea water. He estimated that 70 million people in the Arab world are without access to clean water and he estimated the investment that is needed to be around $10 billion.
While the panel agreed that the solution is in desalination plants, they differed on the most cost effective method.
Dr. Fares Howari, an associate professor at the University of Texas, suggested nuclear desalination plants, while Nafa Khalaf, president of Detroit Contracting Inc., offered a project that he called “solar water energy” as the solution where solar power is used in desalination and energy generation.
The most emotionally charged session came in a panel discussing the Arab-Israeli peace process, where Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center of Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution blamed the hurdle in the implementation of the Annapolis accords on militant Palestinian factions like HAMAS.
Daniel Levy, an Israeli citizen and a senior fellow with the New America Foundation, insisted that Israel must end the occupation first.
“Occupied people can’t negotiate conditions with their occupier,” Levy said. “We must start by de-occupation of the Palestinians.”
Zeid Abu Amr, former foreign minister for the Palestine Authority and president of the Palestinian Council on Foreign Relations, said that the opposing Palestinian-Israeli positions are too far apart on three key issues: the borders, the refugees and Jerusalem.
He said that the Palestinians won’t accept anything less than a Palestinian state and Israel refuses to recognize a Palestinian state. He predicted that 2008 will end without an agreement, and that the problem will be thrown again into the lap of the next U.S. president.
Abu Amr suggested not a two-state solution, but a one-state solution, where the Palestinian movement turns into a civil rights movement like South Africa’s movement to end apartheid.
Afif Safieh, ambassador of the PLO Mission, said that Israel follows the saying “Diplomacy is the art of delaying the inevitable.” He said that humane treatment of the Palestinians is the moral duty of the Israelis because “inflicting pain reduces the sympathy to the retaliation.”
He said that Arabs have been unreasonably reasonable in offering Israel normalization in the Arab world.
“The major impediment [to peace] is not terrorism but territory,” Safieh said. “Israel has an insatiable appetite to stealing Palestinian land. They’re offering only 58% of the West Bank territories in exchange for peace. We don’t want the U.S. to sacrifice an Israeli friend but accept another friend: The Palestinians… The road to Arab acceptability of the U.S. and lovability is Palestine.”
Fayza Aboul Naga, minister of international cooperation in Egypt, during another session spoke about challenges for women in business in the Middle East, stressing that emphasis should be focused on the youth, who represent the majority of the region’s population and who are facing high numbers of unemployment.
Observers at the three-day forum, held under the slogan of “One world, two cultures, endless possibilities,” commented on low turnout and a low level of enthusiasm compared to past forums in Detroit and Texas.
Chairman and co-founder of the forum, Ahmad Chebbani, could not hide his disappointment with the number of participants, despite the presence of high-profile speakers like Moussa, Khelil, Juan Jose Daboub, managing director of the World Bank, Dr. Craig Barret, chairman of Intel Corp. and Peter Robertson, vice chairman of Chevron.
Daboub, who traced his origin to Palestine, expressed great optimism about the prospects of business in the Middle East and said the region has sustained an impressive six percent annual growth on average per year. But he was quick to point out challenges and how rising food prices has put 100 million people back into poverty in the past two years.
Barrett gave a presentation in which he said half of the world population is getting into new economic models where technology is becoming the backbone of economy. He said three billion cell phones are being used in the world today. He outlined programs like “Injaz,” directed towards integrating computers into the educational system, pointing out that connectivity in developing countries is more expensive than hardware and that he’s optimistic that broadband will play a great role in solving the problem, especially in regions where telephone wires aren’t readily available.
“Considering the difficult times under which this forum convenes, the turnout has been very good,” said Chebbani about the forum. “The world is facing greater challenges, that are adding stress to an already fragile Arab-American relationship, and it requires greater effort to move it forward.”