An investment manager's Mideast memo

In a sense, the Middle East can be viewed as a prism of many facets and complexities and our trip - by six American investment managers - as an attempt to view this prism from as many vantage points as possible in order to better understand its nature.

The trip included visits to Jordan, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel (in that order) and involved meetings with over a hundred individuals, including American ambassadors and State Department counselors, oil men, governmental ministers, bankers, sheikhs, entrepreneurs, investment managers, expatriates, journalists, and miscellaneous other professional persons.

Many conclusions can be drawn from our journey but if I were to draw one overriding conclusion it is the importance of commerce, now and in the future, as a counterforce to politics. Time and again, we were confronted with commercial relationships which were either inconsistent with political relationships or directly in conflict with them.

Israel best illustrates the point.

The Israeli economy is a bit of a mystery to everyone with its triple-digit inflation and complete lack of balance (e.g. the government budget is over 80 percent of GNP). But one of the things that make the Israeli system work is its large export business, often with Arabs, and with countries who vote consistently against Israel in the United Nations.

Israeli fruit, for example, crosses the Allenby Bridge into Jordan and, in some cases, makes its way (via Jordanian trucks) to Iraq. Thus, the Iraqis, sworn enemies of Israel, often eat Israeli fruit for breakfast.

Nigeria is the prototype of the black African country that despises Israel in the councils of the UN. Yet there are four Hebrew schools in Nigeria teaching the children of Israeli technicians.

Egypt is another country that is supposed to be off limits to Arab commerce these days. Yet the Arabs are substantial real estate investors in Cairo and elsewhere. And Egyptian workers and technicians are everywhere in the Arab world.

Jordan and Syria are at odds these days, with armies occasionally massing on each other's borders. Yet Jordanian goods find their way to Syria along the Damascus road.

America is vilified daily in the Arab press (largely as a friend of Israel) yet many Arabs are educated in the United States and most rely on American goods and services. (One Kuwaiti we met with retains an apartment in Boston and had just sent his wife to Boston to have her baby at Children's Hospital.)

And so it goes in every country, more so all the time.

In fact, if I were to build an optimistic case for the Middle East, it would rely more on commercial possibilities than on political ones. These people are born capitalists. They love to trade and make money and consume the decadent goods and services of the West. It is hard to imagine their wittingly flirting too much with the Russians or with Russian surrogates.

And the money is getting spread around, particularly in the Gulf states where there is so much of it that it must, in the popular phrase of the day, ''trickle down.''

In that sense, time is on our side: the growing wealth and infrastructures of Arabia bring it closer to the US.

This is not to ignore the cultural and religious differences, the issue of Israel and the West Bank, or the immense xenophobia which was evident, particularly in Saudi Arabia. But it suggests that the Middle East may be able to withstand more political tension and more American ''fumbling'' and more downright strategic ambiguity than the current conventional wisdom suggests.

No one is wise enough to know how it will all turn out; and there are terrifying possibilities along the lines we read about every day. But, as long as the money and the commerce continue to flow in all directions, I have a feeling that catastrophe will be avoided.

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