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Mediterranean business news in brief

* US Senate committee approves Morocco trade deal

The US Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday approved a free-trade agreement with Morocco which would eliminate tariffs on 95 percent of bilateral trade in consumer and industrial products.

Industry backers have said the bill, which passed by a vote of 20 to 1, represents the most extensive access of any US trade agreement with a developing country.

The bill is expected to be particularly beneficial to the US grain industry. The United States accounts for roughly 60 percent of Morocco's total corn imports - although it has encountered increasing competition from Latin American exporters in recent years.

Meanwhile the House Ways and Means Committee was due to put the final touches on its version of the bill late Wednesday, clearing the way for a full House vote and final Senate approval as early as next week.

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* Mobile sales top 40 million units in Mideast, Africa

The mobile handset market in the Middle East and Africa jumped by almost 26 percent in 2003, with shipments surpassing 40 million units across the region.

According to a new IDC study, sales were highest in the Middle East, reflecting the region's more advanced level of economic development compared to most of Africa.

Handset sales will rise strongly, reaching close to 50 million this year and expanding consistently through 2008 as shipments in many underdeveloped markets surge. At this point, overall mobile penetration will remain relatively low, especially in Africa, and major growth will still lie ahead.

As the largest single market in the Middle East and Africa, Turkey accounted for about one-fifth of all handset shipments in 2003. Competition is already well established in the mobile market there, but economic woes have caused the market to lose steam in the last few years. Morocco, the third-largest market, is also showing signs of saturation and will exhibit only low to moderate levels of growth in the next few years.

By contrast, demand is taking off in several of the region's other large developing nations, notably Iran, and Pakistan, and also in many smaller ones. "There is something of a changing of the guard going on in the mobile business of the Middle East and Africa," said Simon Baker, research manager for Mobile Phones, IDC CEMA. "A couple of years ago it was largely a matter of looking at Turkey and South Africa and then totting up the smaller countries together. Today many states in Africa and most in the Middle East are no longer pioneer territory, but emerging markets are beginning to notch up significant growth as they move into the rapid expansion phase of the typical 'S' curve."


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* Regional banks announce leap in profits

BEIRUT: More Arab banks announced massive jumps in profits for the first half of the year over the weekend.

First Gulf Bank in the United Arab Emirates announced Saturday an 80 percent increase in net profits for the first half of 2004 to 101.8 million dirhams ($27.7 million). Meanwhile Saudi-based Arab National Bank announced net profits rose by 53 percent to reach 576 million rials ($153.6 million).

"We have set aggressive strategies and budgets for this year, and our financial performance results are as per plan," said First Gulf CEO Abdul-Hamid Said. "The market is still full of opportunities and we will ensure that we maximize our returns in this booming economy."

Operating income at First Gulf rose to 186 million dirhams ($50.6 million), up 59 percent on the same period of 2003, while total assets reached 8.3 billion dirhams ($2.2 billion), 40 percent higher than last year.

The bank posted net profits of 120.9 million dirhams ($33 million) in 2003, up 50 percent on the previous year.

The CEO of Arab National Bank said profit increases there reflected the strong growth trend in core earnings over the past several years.

The bank has been active in financing major infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia and was lead manager of a 6 billion rial loan to Saudi Electricity Company.

Beirut,07 19 2004
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