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French Version

Lebanese businessmen step up competition for contracts in Iraq (Daily Star)

US cautious about doing deals with those outside peace process

Lebanese and Arab businessmen are trying to claim a share of contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq estimated to be worth over $100 billion. They were joined by businessmen from America, Europe and Israel at the World Economic Forum that took place in Jordan this week.

The Forum coincided with the meeting of the “Quartet,” made up of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, to discuss the peace process.

“The Americans feel a little bit cautious about Lebanon, because it’s not in the peace process,” said ex-president of the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association Jacques Sarraf. “I got the feeling Americans prefer to work with Gulf states and Jordan.” He added the US is pushing Lebanese businessmen to go against their government and normalize ties with Israel

Before the recent war that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq was an important market for Lebanese industrialists, encouraged by a deliberate Iraqi policy to win Arab political support by favoring goods from Arab countries.

Former Iraqi Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh, now in the custody of US forces, estimated that the trade between Lebanon and Iraq since the start of the oil for food program in 1996 was worth $1.3 billion.

But now that 13 years of tough UN sanctions are over Lebanese businessmen are having to court both the Americans and Iraqis to gain a foothold in the Iraqi market.

Manager of cement company Ciments du Sibline, Nicolas Nahhas, said that the war had created momentum for change in the Middle East, but the outcome is not yet clear for Lebanese businessmen.

“We are not optimistic or pessimistic. We are all looking to see what is going to happen,” said Nahhas. “If there are contracts for reconstruction, we want a share.” “The future of business hinges on two things: the success of the Americans in implementing their agenda in Iraq and the ‘road map,’” he said. “We should watch out for competition from Israel because the US will open the Iraqi market for everybody,” said Toufic Gargour, a partner in the Gargour group, which distributes sanitary products in Iraq.

Gargour said Israeli traders have already entered Iraq and are snapping up telecom and information technology deals.

Iraq is a magnet for Arab business not just because of the sheer size of the contracts for reconstruction, but also because, Gargour said, “If Iraq is going to be a free market, I believe we will have more opportunities as Lebanese businessmen than before the war.”

Arab countries, the biggest destinations for Lebanese exports, have yet to dismantle barriers to trade. Inter-Arab trade is presently less than 10 percent of the Arab world’s total global trade. “Arab markets are not yet ripe because there are still borders,” said Gargour.

Beirut 30-06-2003
Dania Saadi
The Daily Star

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