Sharm Summit: The businessmen are coming

Salma El-Wardani , Wednesday 19 Jan 2011

With Minister Rachid backing of business sector and liberal economy, and with recent food and price crises erupting in several Arab countries, businessmen now have more power and a bigger stage to voice their opinion

Sharm Summit
An Egyptian soldier peers out of a vehicle window under flags of various Arab countries (Photo: AP)

Sharm El-Sheikh yesterday was the kind of city where you could mingle with ministers, the chairman of Arab League, and other high officials. Today, Wednesday, it is city swarming with presidents and monarchs, saying “pardon me” and “excuse me” as you bump into them.

Yet, all eyes and cameras are on Arab businessmen.

As a result, when Arab leaders meet today in the City of Peace in an attempt to reach a consensus on how best to integrate Arab countries, they will not only look to their ministers and high officials for recommendations, but also to their businessmen.

These recommendations include speeding up the implementation of joint Arab projects introduced during the 2009 summit in Kuwait such as building transportation infrastructure between Arab countries and a Customs Union.

“We introduced some very efficient ideas and mechanisms that if applied will lead to tremendous changes in the business map of the Arab world," telecommunication tycoon Naguib Sawiris told Ahram online.
"They will facilitate inter-Arab investment, entering new markets, and will end the problem of regional disputes because economy doesn’t have to overlap with politics."

Sawiris introduced a proposal to establish a fund for Arab investments with procedures for arbitration and dispute settlement between the countries through the Arab League.

For two years now, Sawiris, the chairman of Orascom Telecom, has been facing many business disputes in the region, including with the Algerian government, which claims the company owes unpaid back taxes.
Algeria also blocked a bid by South African MTN to buy Djezzy, an OT revenue-earner subsidiary, offering, instead, to acquire it at a lower price.

Yesterday’s plenary session was attended by 100 chief executive officers of regional companies, several Arab ministers, some 30 chairmen of regional Egyptian companies, and Arab League officials. During the session, Egyptian and Arab businessmen presented their specific and practical visions on how best to propel collective Arab economic cooperation in the field of trade and investment.

Among the ideas presented was that of businessman Khaldoun El-Mawqea, who proposed a unified Arab investment law. This and other suggestions will all be discussed by Arab leaders today.

The participating businessmen also proposed an alternative fund to the one officially proposed in last year's summit: an ‘Arab paternal fund’ especially designed for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Prior to yesterday’s forum, the businessmen began their joint initiative on 27 December, 2010, at a preparatory meeting in Egypt to which some 30 chairmen and chief executive officers of major regional Arab companies and sovereign funds were invited.

The participants in the preparatory meeting agreed on a mechanism to set up an entity made up of the largest Arab companies who would represent the private sector's view on how to accelerate common Arab economic action.

“This business forum, to hear our voices, is itself a tremendous change and hundreds of steps forward”, said Alaa Ezz, a businessmen and chairman of Egypt’s Chamber of Commerce, told Ahram online.

Ezz, who is also president and CEO of the Enviro Egypt Group, believes that the initiative to include businesses introduced by Kuwait during 2009 first Economic summit is a “conceptually and strategic new trend."

“Being part of the decision making is the thing,” he explained. “You’re going to be as effective as other officials in power by affecting the existing legislations and introducing new ones that will foster and help business environment.”

Yesterday, the conference centre in Sharm El-Sheikh was packed with businessmen from all Arab countries, discussing not just the official forum agenda but also finalizing their own business deals on the side.

According to Ezz, “occasions like what we have today are a real opportunity for us to meet and finalize deals across the Arab region.”

“One hour ago, I attended four deals that were agreed upon,” he said, without revealing further details.

Egyptian Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid, who was the chairman of the last summit before joining government, had an entrepreneurial and multinational career. He established and grew fine foods, which became Egypt’s leading brand.

“Having Arab businessmen and representatives of Arab and regional companies and funds participating in this year’s summit is part of the Egyptian initiative to speed up the achievement of Arab economic integration, and having their voice heard,” Rachid told Ahram online, calling on leaders to adopt further measures and legislations to encourage and motivate Arab companies to expand their businesses in the entire region.

Rachid, who led all sideline businessmen sessions during the summit’s preparatory meetings, said in a press conference prior to yesterday’s business forum that Egypt sees the increase of investments as a difficult challenge, but an important because it increases job opportunities and growth rates.

He added: "There are also opportunities to attract new investments to other economic sectors such as industry, communication, and ports, to reduce unemployment.”

“The most important thing about this summit is that it will foster understanding among Arab businessmen and create more inter-Arab projects that will help face the growing unemployment in the Arab region,” Raja El-Kabarity, chairman of Jordan’s Chamber of Commerce, told Ahram online.

Jordan is one of many Arab countries that have recently witnessed anti-government demonstrations and protests amid the surge in food prices and unemployment.

“We’re here for that cause; helping our governments to face the crisis of unemployment and the rise in world food prices that hit the Arab world,” El Karabity added. “The recent crisis will give Arab businessmen more space to work in.”

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