In what appears to be a break in the 40-year-old Arab League boycott against Israel, the Kuwaiti Embassy said yesterday that all U.S. companies will be in the running for its reconstruction contracts, including Jewish-owned firms and companies that do business with Israel.
"We view them as American companies," said Fay McLaren, who works in the embassy press office. "We're not looking at them as to whether they are Jewish or not."
After checking with the press attache, she added that "there would be no discrimination" toward Jewish companies or companies doing business with Israel in the competition for contracts related to the rebuilding of the war-torn nation.
While Ambassador Saud Nasir al-Sabah was out of town and unavailable for comment, Ms. McLaren said she assumed the policy pertained to all countries.
The apparent Kuwaiti policy shift was confirmed by Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, who said that she had been given direct assurance from the embassy that when it comes to awarding reconstruction contracts, "it doesn't care if they are blue, green, purple, Israeli or Arab."
This represents a departure from past Kuwaiti policy, which forbade doing business with companies owned by Jews or which did business with Israel.
According to Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, Arab nations have long boycotted companies that did business with Israel or were headed by "Zionist sympathizers." He said there have always been inconsistencies in the boycott, such as the recent deletion of Coca-Cola Co., which does business in Israel, from the blacklist. But for all practical purposes, it was nearly impossible for a Jewish-owned company to do business with Kuwait or other Arab nations, he said.
Kuwait's new policy position could be good news for Jewish companies in Maryland eager to participate in what seems to be a special relationship that has developed in recent weeks between the state and the Persian Gulf nation.
In appreciation for its no-strings-attached offer to send an emergency medical team into Kuwait to help rebuild its health care facilities, the Kuwaiti government has named Maryland a "primary procurement agent," and the embassy has said it will try to push as much reconstruction work as possible toward companies located in the state. Estimates of the cost of rebuilding the ravaged country have ranged from $25 billion to $100 billion.
A team of about 35 doctors from Baltimore-area hospitals is scheduled to leave for Kuwait tomorrow.
Under terms of an agreement signed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the ambassador earlier this month, Kuwait has asked U.S. companies shipping cargo to Kuwait to use the port of Baltimore whenever it is economically feasible.
According to state economic development officials, Kuwait has also agreed "to look at Maryland first" as it shops the United States for goods and services. Assuming their prices are competitive, Maryland companies would have the first opportunity to fill the orders.
The day-to-day handling of the procurement activities is being handled the Kuwait-Maryland Partnership, an organization formed earlier this year by a group of local business leaders seeking to coordinate business operations throughout the state
into a one-stop shopping center where the Kuwaiti government can come for a wide variety of products and services.
Executives of the partnership, which is representing the interests of about 900 Maryland businesses -- ranging from a tiny company with two dump trucks to Westinghouse's giant Electronic Systems Group in Linthicum -- are in Kuwait this week to set up offices and pursue business opportunities.
Secretary of Economic and Employment Development J. Randall Evans said yesterday that any Jewish company registered with the partnership would be treated like any other company.
In its negotiations with the Kuwaiti government, Mr. Evans said, the state took the position all along that all companies be treated the same, whether they were headed by Jewish executives or did business with Israel. "They never interrupted to say, 'We don't do business with Jewish companies,' " he said.
Nor "did we ask that it [the shift in policy] be written out in black and white," he added.
Following articles in The Sun concerning Maryland's business relationship with Kuwait, the owners of several Jewish business, including Alan Abramson, president of Archway Ford on Reisterstown Road, called the newspaper inquiring if they would be permitted to participate in the program.
"Absolutely," was Mr. Evans' reply when the question was passed on to him.
The Baltimore Jewish Council's Arthur Abramson, who is not related to Alan Abramson, said yesterday that he raised the Arab boycott issue with Mrs. Bentley and the governor's office about two weeks ago.