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Putting a price on US-Arab misconceptions
Perceptions of Middle East in the western business world remain confused and contradictory. Yet the lack of understanding goes both ways and cost millions of dollars a year.
March 15, 2010 6:12 by Liz Peek
Masood Ahmed suggested the Dubai World crisis would see demand among western companies for greater openness in their dealings with the Middle East. The tendency to blur boundaries between private and public entities, and of local authorities to upend agreements reached abroad threaten dealings, while the lack of formal bankruptcy procedures in the Gulf also alarms investors. He said the region needed to insure respect for private property, labor flexibility, less red tape, and continued infrastructure investment.
While Arab countries should certainly streamline the regulatory and legal barriers to trade, the responsibility for greater opportunities rests also in Washington. Since obstacles to a region-wide Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. appear insurmountable, most observers advocate pushing for bilateral agreements such as exist between the U.S. and Jordan.
That pact, dating from 2000, has encouraged exports from Jordan to the U.S. to climb from $15 million in 1997 to $1.4 billion in 2007. Other countries, including Bahrain and Oman, have reached trade agreements with the U.S. Though the president called for a doubling of U.S.
exports in his recent State of the Union speech, and for approval of pending trade agreements, he is unlikely to risk political heat to move those or other pacts forward.
So what can the private sector do to further Arab commerce and better relations? Ideas include youth exchange programs, microfinance and broadening Internet availability, and most importantly maybe, continuing to talk.
One panel attempted to define the “misperceptions and misunderstandings” that color how Americans and Arabs look at each other.
In trying to determine, in effect, “why do they hate us?” no Arab representative among the 100 plus in the room thought to mention the planes that flew into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 – the most powerful event for Americans in the history of U.S.-Arab relations. There is a long way to go.