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Thu 4 Mar 2004 04:00 AM

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Business starts to speak out

The region’s top businesspeople have joined forces to push for change in the Arab world. Mohammed Al Abbar outlines the goals of the Arab Business Council.

|~|alabbar.jpg|~|Alabbar: “So many people from the outside are telling us to reform and improve.”|~|Top businesspeople from acr-oss the Middle East are joining forces to push for far reaching economic and political reform in the Arab world. The first step was the creation last June of the Arab Business Council (ABC) at the World Economic Forum’s Global Reconciliation Summit in Jordan. Following on from that, the 100 member organisation has now gone public with a document referred to as a blueprint for reform in the Arab world.

The ABC’s executive committee reads like a who’s who of regional business leaders. Mohamed Ali Alabbar, chairman of the UAE’s Emaar Properties; Ibrahim Dabdoub, CEO of National Bank of Kuwait and Lubna Olayan, CEO of Olayan Financing Company, are instantly recogniseable names.

Members also come from across the Arab world. Nasser Chammaa is chairman and general manager of Lebanon’s Solidere; Bassim Jaï Hokimi is chairman and CEO of Morocco’s Groupe ONA; and the committee’s chairman, Shafiq Gabr, is chairman and CEO of Artoc Group for Investment & Development based in Egypt.

A meeting with Mohammed Ali Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties and a prominent figure in the UAE, shows that whilst the organisation may be keeping a low public profile, its message is clear: the Arab world has to change. “So many people from the outside are telling us to reform and improve,” says Alabbar.

“We agree, but we, the Arab Business Council, have a stake in this, this is our region. We are the voice that we think has the legitimacy to talk about positive change.”

For Alabbar, the facts tell the story. The region’s failure to attract foreign direct investment is well known, its education system does not serve the needs of the job market and its judicial system is inadequate.

Various reports estimate that the Arab countries need to create six million jobs every year just to keep their average unemployment rate at 15%. “This is a serious issue,” observes Alabbar.

The Arab Business Council’s blueprint for reform, formally titled ‘Economic Reform Priorities in the Arab World: A Private Sector Perspective’, calls for change in three broad areas: economic policy, human resources development and governance.

On the economic front, key requests include trade liberalisation, regional economic integration and the elimination of government monopolies.

On the second question, human resources, the blueprint calls for educational systems to be aligned with the needs of the labour markets. The overall goal of educational reforms must be to develop a skilled, motivated and productive indigenous workforce, rather than relying on low cost foreign labour.

It is in the third area, governance, where Alabbar admits things become more sensitive. The Arab Business Council blueprint calls for respect for the rule of law, greater transparency in government and a clampdown on corruption and favouritism.

The document does not, however, mention democracy and Alabbar is careful when asked whether the Arab Business Council is in favour of it. “There are countries that are going for democracy in the Arab world,” he says.

“Qatar is an example, it’s very nice and gradual. You can follow, maybe, Jordan’s example. You decide on your own; maybe you can do it in three years, maybe you can do it in one year. Have a plan.”

Many people in and outside the region agree with what the ABC is saying and would have no problem with the content of its blueprint, a simple four page document. The key question, of course, is whether or not the ABC is just another talking shop, or whether it does have the stature to influence those upstairs. Its high profile membership suggests that if any NGO is in a position to influence Arab governments, it’s this one.

Alabbar says the Arab Business Council already has the ear of heads of state. “We go straight to Prime Ministers, we’ve been to the King of Jordan, the Prime Minister of Egypt, the King of Morocco, the Prime Minister of Lebanon.” Public workshops on issues like economic reform are said to be in the pipeline.

Besides how effective the council can be, a key question is whether or not its members practice the very same principles of accountability and transparency that they are calling on governments to embrace. “Not all,” admits Alabbar. “It’s a new culture. People will need time.”

Also, whilst calling for the dismantling of government monopolies, shouldn’t the private sector be prepared to get rid of its own equivalent, agency laws? Alabbar seems to think so, denouncing agencies as “useless.” There are plenty of large family business groups, however, that don’t agree.

Whilst its blueprint sets out a clear agenda, the Council is aware of the need to tread carefully. Some government officials may support reform, but plenty do not, nor do many members of the regional business community.

“Our members, because they’re businessmen, don’t want to upset their own governments. They want to be gradual, sensible,” says Alabbar. Later in the interview, however, he points out that, “gradual” does not mean “slow.”

The pace may be gradual and even members of the Arab Business Council may be struggling to practice some of the ideas outlined in the blueprint, but the need for reform in the Arab world is clear. The ABC may well be in a position to influence and accelerate the process of change.||**||

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