Two massive problems obstruct investment which could liberate much of the Middle East and North Africa: The paralyzing war mentality embodied by the Arab League's boycott against Israel (now greatly eroded but not gone) and the encrustation of regulations and red tape in most of the 18 nations, designed largely to impede investment.
The business conference in Casablanca, Sunday through Tuesday, sponsored by the United States and Russia, offered tremendous hope to 150 million people in 18 countries by spotlighting those problems. It did not end them. But with 2,000 delegates from countries and businesses, with Israelis and Arabs mingling, it showed the absurdity of perpetuating those problems.
The conference will have succeeded if the pressure it created induces the Arab League to end its primary economic boycott of Israel rather than holding it as bargaining chip for every settlement Israel needs to negotiate with neighbors. Syria, which stayed away from the conference, should not have the power to decide when Saudi Arabia and Kuwait end their primary boycott, now that Egypt and Jordan are eager to get going with joint projects.
The conference will have succeeded if private-sector representatives returning from Casablanca with each other's business cards follow up with faxes. It will have succeeded if governments that now do everything to hamstring investment based on inherited attitudes conclude that this is counter-productive for their peoples.
Though the U.S. and Israel seek creation of a regional development bank, the conference endorsement of this idea was weak. Saudi Arabia, which would be the principal investor, is opposed. It is over-extended, facing domestic disquiet and new bills for the U.S. military presence. Saudi Arabia's legitimate reluctance must be faced.
Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced creation of a private-sector international bank owned jointly by Egypt, Israel and Jordan. This is also a fine idea that can become a going concern quicker, provided that banks in the three nations get moving.
Israel has a list of 150 projects it would like to undertake with Arab partners. Its Arab neighbors have some of their own. The sooner these can be freely discussed, the more prosperous all the peoples of the region will be. Progress is being made.