January/February 2012, Page 52
Policymakers Discuss U.S.-Arab Business
Day two of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Policymakers Conference, on Oct. 28, began with panels focused on business. Dr. Tamara Wittes, State Department deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions, and formerly with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, provided "A View from the U.S. Department of State." She focused on the recent events in Libya and offered a general outlook on U.S. policy in the Middle East this past year.
The first panel, "Business, Investment and Financial Development," was chaired by Michael Markland, vice president for private wealth management at Morgan Stanley in Dubai, and featured self-described "professional bridge builders" in the international finance world.
Ambassador Ford Fraker, senior adviser and chairman for the Middle East and North Africa Group at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. LP, outlined his experiences during two big "economic booms" in Saudi Arabia, in the late 1970s and again in the late 2000s. "If you were an international business with aspirations for growth internationally and you weren't looking at the market in the Gulf, then you were missing the opportunity of the decade, if not the next three decades," he stated. According to his calculations, said Fraker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2007 to 2009, Riyadh has invested a staggering trillion and a half dollars in new programs in the past 10 years. He strongly encouraged new investors to "buy a ticket and come to the region."
Ambassador Joseph LeBaron, a senior adviser at Patton Boggs, LLP, offered a more somber outlook. "The flow of foreign direct investment from the United States and elsewhere in the world into the Arab world after the Arab spring"—an accurate measure of risk—"is declining," he pointed out, as is the expected growth rate in the region as projected by the IMF. Among the suggestions LeBaron offered to policymakers were taking out more insurance premiums against "political risks" to encourage investment, and cooperation by the GCC states to "fund and administer assistance programs to countries such as Egypt and Tunisia."
Instead of dwelling on the region's dismal unemployment projections, Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-UAE Business Council, recommended policy changes in leadership and education to inspire economic growth. The demographic challenge "presents an opportunity for U.S. and foreign firms to provide leadership, education, training, and occupational development for the region's future leaders," he pointed out. Sebright listed seven sectors as "pillars" for American commercial partnership with the UAE: commercial aerospace and defense; energy, including renewables, civilian nuclear and oil and gas; infrastructure development and green buildings; tourism and culture; education; media; and healthcare.
Last to speak was Lionel C. Johnson, vice president of Middle East and North Africa affairs with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While he encouraged investment in the transitioning countries, he cautioned that the full transition of the Arab Awakening still has a long way to go.