Envoys try to drum up business between U.S., Israel

NEW YORK — Martin Indyk, the scholar-turned-statesman, has become Indyk the salesman, and he is selling Israel.

Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, was one of five American envoys to the Middle East who hustled from New York to Chicago to Houston in five days during in September to drum up American interest in doing business in Israel.

"The message is simple," Indyk told the American Israel Chamber of Commerce at one of several meetings in New York. "This is an opportunity to make money in Israel."

The five touring Americans — Indyk; Edward Walker, the U.S. envoy to Egypt; Raymond Mabus, ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Ryan Crocker, ambassador to Kuwait; and Wesley Egan, the U.S. envoy to Jordan — have been dealt very different decks. Some serve in countries where they see consumer markets. Some see lucrative contracts for Americans, while others see cheap labor.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are rich markets, but not as "liquid" as they once were. Yet, some 900 American companies operate in Kuwait and U.S. exports to Kuwait in 1994 were valued at $1.17 billion, Egan said. Saudi Arabia was especially good for the U.S. car industry and accounted for 25 percent of all automobiles exported from the United States, according to the Commerce Department.

Egypt, with the largest and poorest market, lags behind the others in opening its economy. The United States "will not have a truly fruitful trade relationship with the Middle East until Egypt, which represents 40 percent of the world's Arab population, completes this transition," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown told business leaders in New York.

With small, poor Jordan, Egan said, the United States has "an enormous trade surplus," with more than $400 million a year in American exports. Direct U.S. investment in Jordan is "fairly low," around $17 to $18 million.

But as the envoys were touring the United States, Jordan's parliament passed a law intended to boost foreign investment by allowing the Jordanian cabinet to ease restrictions on foreign ownership.

The Jordanian cabinet is expected to act on the law, which is part of a package of legislation that cuts corporate taxes, before the regional economic summit in Amman in October.

But "Amman is not Casablanca II," Egan said, referring to the unprecedented regional business conference held last fall in Morocco.

Instead, he said, the emphasis for the three-day event in Jordan is "to show the world's private sector that there are new business and investment opportunities," enhanced by the peace process, linked to political stability and driven in the private sector, he said.

Both Egan and Crocker said at a briefing in New York that they hoped Syria and Lebanon would participate in the Amman conference.

Crocker said expanding peace in the Middle East could help Lebanon develop "the new internal stability within Lebanon and [open] up Lebanon to what Lebanon does best, which is business. I think there is extraordinary opportunity."

That opportunity need not be impaired by the U.S. travel restrictions on Lebanon, which Crocker said are strictly a matter of security. "We feel there is an ongoing threat to the safety of Americans were they to travel to Lebanon."

However, he added, "American companies are doing business in Lebanon, have been doing business in Lebanon, will continue to do business in Lebanon."

Besides opening up Middle Eastern markets, the aggressive American trade promotion is designed to raise employment in the United States. Every $1 billion in U.S. exports means 17,000 American jobs, according to conservative Commerce Department estimates.

Indyk was touting Israel both as a consumer society in its own right and as a springboard to larger markets.

Sounding like the emissary from the Israeli Industry and Trade Ministry, Indyk said there is a "revolution in retail," reeling off statistics: Israeli per capita income is $14,000; boasts an $80 billion gross national product; claims economic growth this year of 8 percent.

And it is "revolutionary" as well to envision Israel as a trade hub for the region, as the link between American business and Jordan, and from Jordan to the Gulf states.

One sore point has been the poor American showing, although Brown noted that Israel had been "setting the pace for increased cooperation and integration with the United States [long] before free trade was fashionable.

"Despite our close trade relationship with Israel we hold less than a 20 percent share of the Israeli import market, compared to the European Union's share of 50 percent. We must do better than that."

Noting the end of the secondary and tertiary Arab boycott, Indyk said that virtually all nations are open to Israel for trade. But, he added, "The irony is that the United States… seems to be lagging behind in recognizing the radical transformation" in the Israeli economy.

Israel has a $1 billion surplus in trade with the U.S., while Israel has a $7.5 billion deficit in the balance of trade with Europe. The European advantage is due, in part, to habits of association and geographical proximity, Indyk said. "But the most important reason for the deficit is that European companies have learned how to make money in Israel."

Jerusalem now is removing some barriers that had hampered U.S. trade, such as "discrimination" (in taxes and in compulsory insurance premiums) against large-engine motor vehicles, he said. Although that change does not go into effect until Jan. 1, Indyk said, sales of U.S. autos are already outstripping those from Europe. "For the first time in Israel's history, people will be driving American cars."

The Israeli government is taking advantage of the U.S. loan guarantees in undertaking huge infrastructure projects, including expansion of the Ashdod port, and highway and rail construction, which build opportunities for U.S. contractors and consultants, he said.

"We are seeking a level playing field and if possible a little bit of a tilt" toward U.S. companies in these projects, Indyk said.

Jerusalem has made a commitment to the United States, when loan guarantees are used to finance a project, "to, in essence, favor American companies," Indyk said.

The fivesome's visit was the first so-called "ambassadors' tour" from the Middle East. Previous tours covered Southeast Asia and the nations served by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The tour was organized by the Business Council for International Understanding, a non-profit association that often acts as a bridge between American business and the U.S. and foreign diplomatic corps.