Kuwait-Md. trade partnership ends "It's over," official says. Lack of business is cited for decision.

November 12, 1991|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Evening Sun Staff

The Kuwait-Maryland Partnership, which was to have been the state's conduit for selling goods and services to war-torn Kuwait, has closed its office in the World Trade Center for want of business.

"It's over," said William Parsons, the president of the partnership.

The partnership was designated last spring in a formal but closely guarded agreement between Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Kuwaiti ambassador as a procurement agency to handle orders for goods and services believed needed for the reconstruction of postwar Kuwait.

The closing of the office is the most tangible sign yet that business in Kuwait has not been what Maryland expected it to be.

"Quite frankly, nothing has happened," said Louis J. Grasmick, one of the business leaders who helped found the partnership in February. "How long do you continue to fund something if nothing is happening?"

The partnership closed its office in the World Trade Center and another office in Kuwait last week, although it has retained a representative in Kuwait, and intends to continue to pursue business, Grasmick said.

Seven original members pledged $100,000 to launch the partnership nine months ago. Grasmick would not reveal the total investment in the project, but said it was "substantial." The effort was funded privately, although it had the enthusiastic support of the governor.

Schaefer and members of the partnership visited Kuwait. The partnership hired a representative to give them access to the top ranks of Kuwaiti government and business and helped dispatch teams of physicians and nurses to provide medical care and advice.

"We did everything they asked us to do," Grasmick said. "But it's very, very frustrating that we have not been able to land one dollar's worth of business."

About 300 Maryland companies contacted the partnership, hoping to get leads on business in Kuwait, but many long ago grew disillusioned with the lack of progress, and either dropped their interest in Kuwait or struck out on their own.

"I gave up on them months ago," said Doris Powers, president of Shielding Technologies Inc. She had wanted the partnership to help her sell the Kuwaitis explosives carriers and detonation shields her Aberdeen company designs.

"I think nothing is going on in Kuwait at all," she said.

Charles Sinunu, international sales manager with Ellicott Machine Corp., said his company has received a few inquiries, including a promising fax last week about a using his company's dredging equipment to soak up oil in Kuwait.

But the Kuwait-Maryland Partnership had nothing to do with the business Ellicott has found in the region. Sinunu said he worked with the partnership for a time, but lost contact with the group several months ago after members tried to solicit money in a stock purchase plan.

"Everyone was told, it [business] is coming, it's coming. But it never came," Sinunu said.

Gus Diakoulas, a partner in the Baltimore Design Resource Center, an architectural design and manufacturing support services firm, is preparing to open a showroom in the United Arab Emirates. He, too, worked with the Kuwait-Maryland Partnership for a time, but has not been in contact with it recently.

"We've gone our own way," he said.

For several months after the war ended, Maryland businesses were told that it was too early to make any deals in Kuwait. The communications lines were disrupted, businessmen had fled, and the country was absorbed with putting out oil well fires and opening its schools.

Now that the children are back in school and the last fire has been doused, there is speculation the business might not come at all.

Although business with Kuwait has not been forthcoming, the state has continued humanitarian efforts to assist the Kuwaitis. The medical team that the partnership helped organize and sponsor has coordinated several visits by Kuwaiti doctors and educators. Yesterday, two doctors and a hospital administrator returned to Kuwait after a trip to Baltimore to learn about the state's emergency medical services program.

Grasmick made a pitch to the visiting physicians, asking them to take word back to Kuwait that Maryland still is waiting for business. The doctors replied that Marylanders are their "friends for life."

"We're still hopeful," Grasmick said, adding that the partnership still is trying to negotiate two pending business proposals.

No one from the governor's office or the Department of Economic and Employment Development could be reached for comment on the office closing.

The state originally had high hopes of sharing in an estimated $100 million worth of business to rebuild Kuwait. Immediately after the war ended, the governor met Kuwaiti Ambassador Saud N. Al-Sabah at his embassy in Washington to offer medical assistance and let him know about Maryland companies and transportation facilities that could help rebuild his country.

Later, Schaefer signed an agreement with the Kuwaiti ambassador that required U.S. business shipping goods to the country to use Baltimore-Washington International Airport or the Port of Baltimore whenever feasible. It also placed the Kuwait-Maryland Partnership in charge of a procurement system, which gave Maryland firms preference in selling to Kuwait.

At the insistence of Schaefer, details of the agreement never were formally released, and a Baltimore Circuit Court judge denied a petition by The Evening Sun make the document public. Because the partnership will continue to be available for any business orders from Kuwait, Grasmick said he didn't believe the closing of the office would affect the agreement.

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