The Middle East and North African Economic Summit wrapped up three days of meetings in the Jordanian capital of Amman with news that Israel had signed its first major business agreement with a Persian Gulf state.
The Amman gathering, which convened under the slogan “The Middle East is Open for Business,” drew 60 nations, including some 2,000 government officials and businesspeople, for a series of meetings aimed at promoting regional development projects.
A similar meeting held a year ago in Casablanca, Morocco, was a largely ceremonial affair at which Israel found itself able to mingle for the first time with Arab businesspeople in the name of an open spirit of cooperation.
But this year, the emphasis turned from symbolism to spelling out plans for cooperative projects and concluding business deals.
The change was evidence by the signing of an agreement in principle under which Qatar would sell $2 billion worth of natural gas to Israel with the American energy company Enron acting as an intermediary.
Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding, signed on the Israeli side by Energy Minister Gonen Segev, Enron will extract the gas from Qatari oil fields. Deliveries to Israel of some 5 million tons of natural gas are expected to begin in the year 2001.
The gas shipments will initially be delivered by tanker, but officials predicted that it might ultimately be transported via a pipeline linking Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
Segev, alluding to his country’s lack of diplomatic ties with Qatar, said the gas deal had bypassed politics.
He predicted that the two countries would soon establish formal relations.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who witnessed the signing, was also optimistic.
“I think it’s a very important step in the normalization of the region,” he said, adding that Israel and Qatar were “building an economic peace and not just a political one.”
The Qatar-Israel gas deal was not the only concrete achievement reached at the three-day meeting.
Despite opposition from a number of participating countries, summit delegates agreed on the creation of a regional development bank, a U.S.-backed idea that was first floated a year ago in Casablanca.
The bank, which is expected to have $5 billion in initial capitalization to fund regional projects, will be headquartered in Cairo.
France and a number of other Western European nations had opposed the idea, saying they would prefer other channels for lending money. Saudi Arabia was also against the bank’s establishment, saying that it feared that much of its funds would be used for Israeli projects.
During the three-day meeting, representatives from Middle East and North African nations presented proposals for projects whose costs would total more than 50 billion.
Israel alone presented plans for more than 200 projects – including new rail lines, an international airport near Eilat and a “riviera” to be developed on Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian soil near the Gulf of Eilat – whose those projected cost exceeded $20 billion.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who attended the conference along with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, warned regional leaders that Western donor nations were dealing with tight budgets at home.
Brown, along with other officials, stressed the need for private investment in the region.
The summit’s organizers acknowledged that, given the high price tag of the projects on each country’s wish list, the meeting probably yielded more contacts than hard business deals.
More deals, they hoped, would be secured at next year’s meeting, scheduled to be held in Cairo.
The Israeli presence at Amman – a total of some 120 government officials and businesspeople – was more muted than a year ago in Casablanca, when they numbered about 600.
Last year, some Arab officials said they felt swampted by the sheer number of Israelis, who they feared were out to dominate the Arab world financially.
The smaller numbers of Israelis at Amman this year was reportedly viewed as a concession to those fears.
Many of those Israeli businessmen who were unable to attend the Amman summit attended instead a separate business conference held at the same time in Jerusalem.
The Jerusalem conference drew businesspeople and representatives from investment firms in 44 countries.
The proximity between the Israeli and Jordanian capitals – less than an hour’s flight separates them – enabled many delegates and officials to attend both meetings.