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French Version

Arab investment talks kick off with calls for reform

Jordan's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Halaiqah warned on Thursday that if Arab countries do not implement their own economic reforms, "they will be imposed on us from the outside."

The US and some European countries have been pressing Arab states to carry out political and economic reforms following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

US President George W. Bush's proposed Broader Middle East Initiative was rejected by many Arab states who considered this proposal a clear intervention in the region's affairs.

Haliaqah, the first speaker in a panel moderated by Basil Fuleihan, chairman of the parliamentary committee on economic affairs, trade, industry and planning, advocated increased regional integration as a key to more vibrant Arab economies. Suggesting a common railroad throughout the Arab world and increased energy and electricity interdependence, he said that "a new approach for integration would fulfill the 'Arab dream."

Haliaqah flashed statistics on two screens behind him during his speech indicating the low participation of Arab countries in world markets and the lag between the developed world and the Arab world on a number of socioeconomic indicators like literacy and per capita income.

Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf stressed the progress Saudi Arabia has made on those same indicators since the 1950s.

Assaf criticized the 2003 United Nations Arab Human Development Report - which painted a grim picture of the human resources of Saudi Arabia - for failing to use accurate statistics when they wrote their report. He called on the UNDP to "better prepare their data."

"Their numbers give a very negative impression to the progress occurring in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries," Assaf said.

During the question and answer period following the panelists' presentations, Assaf was asked about the lack of Saudi-trained medical professionals.

Assaf said the kingdom had opened 6 new medical schools, for a total to 10, and is starting to open technical colleges.

In response to a question on the probability of a successful Arab free trade zone, Lebanese Finance Minister Fouad Siniora said that the free movement of people and goods is important to further integration but that this integration is hard to achieve.

"We can talk about Arab unity all we want, but when a truck of oranges takes 10 days to cross from Lebanon to Kuwait due to customs delays, and is then ruined upon arrival, then there are barriers to integration."

Another audience member commented that not one of the panelists had mentioned research and development as a tool to greater economic growth. He said that most goods in the Arab world are created outside the region.

"This is our weakness," Assaf replied.

Beirut,06 28 2004
The Daily Star
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