Getting Down To Business
Hopes are high for U.S. Arab Economic Forum, but some Arab Americans question the timing.
he U.S.-Arab Economic
Forum, originally scheduled
for last May, gets under
way Sept. 28 at the Detroit
Marriott Renaissance Center.
The three-day event will include
government and business representa-
tives from all Middle Eastern and
North African countries except Israel.
The topic of the ongoing intifizda
(Palestinian uprising) being waged
against the Jewish state is not on the
Two years in planning, the event is
expected to draw about 1,000 partici-
pants and will feature such high-pro-
file speakers as Colin Powell, the
crown prince of Bahrain, the Saudi
Arabian and Egyptian foreign minis-
ters and CEOs of Exxon, Chevron,
Boeing and General Motors corpora-
Some critics of the event in the
Arab-American community say the
forum is being held at a time when
the participants' energies should be
focused on seeking peace, not on eco-
nomic issues. However, the event
could have long-range effects on the
stability of the entire region, according
to several local organizers, participants
and observers from both the Jewish
and Arab-American communities.
"The more that Arab nations are
brought into the international com-
munity, the more we will eventually
see a positive impact," said Rep.
Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, who is a
Joel Tauber of West Bloomfield, for-
mer chair of United Jewish Commun-
ities, said, "The more the people there
can raise their standard of living, the
less they are going to want to destroy
executive director of
the American Arab
Commerce, a spon-
sor of the forum,
said the event focus-
es on the economic
when — and I mean
when, not if — there's peace between
Israel and the Arab states, the climate
will be there for economic integra-
The forum also is sponsored by the
Dearborn-based Arab Community
Center for Economic and Social
Services (ACCESS) and the
Washington, D.C.-based Arab
Coordinating the event is Global
Leadership Team, a branch of the
Southfield-based information technol-
ogy company WebSoft that is led by
Lebanese native Sam Hamdan.
The event has been organized in
close coordination with the U.S.
Department of State, U.S. Depart-
ment of Commerce, Egypt-based
League of Arab States and the Gulf .
Cooperation Council, which repre-
sents the five Persian Gulf states.
In addition to its international
effects, Beydoun said the forum will
establish Detroit as the trade and busi-
ness center of the Middle East, "much
as Miami is for South America."
At the forum, Rep. Levin, the ranking
Democrat on the trade subcommittee
of The House Ways and Means Com-
mittee, will participate in a panel dis-
cussion tided "Economic Opportun-
ities: Competitiveness Outlook and
Growth Opportunities for the U.S.
and Arab World Economies." Mod-
erated by Thomas A. Stewart, editor of
the Harvard Business Review, the dis-
cussion will take place at 10:45 a.m.,
Monday, Sept. 29. Among his fellow
panelists will be Bahrain's minister of
finance and Jordan's minister of trade.
"We have a free-trade agreement
with Jordan and Bahrain, and we're
negotiating one with Morocco," Rep.
Levin said. "It's the [Bush] administra-
tion's intention to negotiate a Middle
East trade agreement, a more compre-
hensive agreement for the future."
Among those helping to create such
agreements is Richard Corson of West
Bloomfield, director of the U.S.
Export Assistance Center of the
United States Commercial Service, a
program of the Commerce Depart-
ment with offices in Pontiac.
"We've been informing companies
in our database about the conferenCe;
our office in Kuwait
has organized a dele-
gation of Kuwaiti
businessmen; in Tel
Aviv and Jerusalem,
we've organized dele-
gations of Palestinian
"I do not believe
the event will be harmful to Jewish
people," said Corson, a Congregation
B'nai Moshe member.
The conference will open up the
possibility of increasing trade between
the United States, the Arab countries
and North Africa, he said. As this hap-
pens, people who work for those corn-
panies will benefit — and that
includes many Jews.
"We're hoping for specific impact on
Michigan companies," Corson said.
"We are setting up one-on-one meet-
ings between Michigan businesspeople
and the Kuwaiti delegation. If those
companies can increase their exports
to the Middle East and North Africa,
that's good for Michigan; it's good for
To Tim Attalla of Northville, a
national Seeds of Peace board member,
nothing but good-can come from the
"The biggest mistake of the Oslo
agreements was not getting the West
Bank and Gaza industrialized," Attalla
said. "I think the benefits of the eco-
nomic forum could trickle down to
increase the livelihood of the people of
the Middle East. If you put people to
work so they can buy what we take for
granted, they'll be less likely to destroy
themselves and their neighborhoods."
Beydoun said he sees a "disconnect"
between the Arab world and the
"This forum will help repair that
disconnect," he said.
Optimism about the forum is not uni-
"I think it's bad timing," said Abed
Hammoud, principal attorney with
the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
Hammoud, who ran for mayor of
Dearborn last year, said that "with so
much bloodshed in the Middle East,
the focus should be on bringing peace.
"The average person in the Arab
community wants to know how to
stop the violence in Israel/Palestine.
The road map is gone; there's no end
In addition, Hammoud said, he is
pessimistic that the conference will
accomplish its goals of increasing trade
between the United States and the
"I don't see many Americans invest-
ing in the Middle East, and rightly
so," he said. "And no sane Middle
Eastern businessman will invest here,
with the freezing of funds from the
area. I think the expectations are too
Hammoud's views are supported by
Osama Siblani, president of Michi-
gan's Arab American Political Action
Committee and publisher of the
Dearborn-based Arab American News,
who editorialized against the confer-
ence in his newspaper on Sept. 13.
"The Arab world has never in all its
history witnessed a more devastating
period of chaos, death and destruc-
tion," Siblani wrote. "Iraq and
Palestine are both on fire, their people
occupied and demoralized — in both
cases by some of the very corporate
coming together in
en economic ties.'
"On the domestic
level, Detroit is
home to the largest
and one of the
largest Muslim com-
munities in the coun-
try. Members of these groups are suf-
fering civil rights abrogations on a
scale not seen since the Japanese
internment camps of WWII. Yet small
businesses and organizations in the
community are being asked to pay
$2,200 (which is a discounted price)
just to attend the conference.
"The conference is obviously not for
their benefit," he wrote. "This is a
price meant to exclude members of
the community — most of whom see
it as hopeless anyway.
"Those corporations and officials
who are attending (there have already