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Salameh calls for economic reform - 'remove all barriers before investors' (Daily Star)

Participants at a conference aimed at attracting investment call for civil liberties

Lebanon's Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, on Saturday called on Arab states to speed up the implementation of economic reforms to attract more investments.

"If we want more investments in our countries then we should implement economic reforms and remove all barriers before investors," Salameh said on the last day of the 10th Arab Investment and Capital Markets conference at the Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel in Beirut.

Economic reforms and the need for privatization were at the core of most of the presentations at the conference, which was aimed at attracting investments to the Middle East and drew more than 1,000 Arab investors and bankers."In today's world, the economy is built on trust and transparency," Salameh said in the conference's closing statement.

The final statement seemed an exact replica of the 2003 conference communique: the need for economic reforms, privatization, creating more jobs for Arab youths, expanding Islamic banking in the region, cutting through the red tape and not to mention giving a bigger role to the private sector.

The statement underlined the need to create more than 100 million jobs in the Arab states over the next 10 years. But for the first time in the conference's history, the participants called for more civil liberties and freedom of expression.

However, the statement did not elaborate on the political reforms that are needed, reflecting the deep split between the Arab states on such issues.

Some critics say these events have become a playground for executives and company chairmen to exchange business cards and make new contacts."But in reality very few major contracts emerge from these meetings," one participant told The Daily Star.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was one of the distinguished guests at the conference, spoke against the unwise Arab investments in the West.

He said that the huge funds of the Arab countries are largely deposited in the banks of rich Western countries, earning very small returns. "According to conservative estimates, there is at least $1 trillion in Arab funds sitting in Western financial centers. Some of these funds have been frozen. If there are investment industries, it is in blue chip shares of well known Western companies," he said.

He also pressed the Arabs to shift away from oil as a main source of income. "Oil is an important source of income for many Arab states," he said.
"But one day this oil will dry up and you will lose a good source of income. You have to find new channels to make the difference," he added.

One of those who made bold statements during the conference was the chairman of the Kuwaiti-based Mobile Telecom Company Saad al-Baraak, who was very critical of the state-owned companies."Public departments in the Arab states remind us of the infamous Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. These departments have become a thing of the past and are standing in the way of full economic development," he said.

Other speakers echoed similar views to those of Baraak."Political and legal obstacles are blocking the influx of the necessary capital into the region," Faisal al-Ayyar, managing director of Kuwait Projects Co. (Holding), said.

Hussein al-Nowais, head of Emirates Holdings, stressed that political stability and transparency were essential to entice investors.

Khaled Janahi, a member of Bahrain's Economic Development Board, urged vital reforms to bring in some of the $1.5 trillion invested outside the region."The Arab world must be able to create 80 million jobs in the years to come," he warned. - With agencies

Beirut 05-07-2004
Osama Habib
The Daily Star



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