Social investors take a step in the Mideast

Investors concerned with improving lives across the globe are testing the hot sands of a new frontier. The moral and financial rewards could make history, but pitfalls could bring upheaval to indigenous cultures and Western portfolios alike.

Welcome, brave investor, to the Middle East.

Few regions offer more tantalizing promise to investors with a dual goal of making money and making a difference. This vast, oil-rich territory suggests a lucrative future in a range of industries spread from North Africa to Pakistan. The Middle East sits on 70 percent of the world's known oil reserves. And the opportunities for social change appear equally enticing to those keen to uproot the economic seeds of terrorism or to raise women's status in societies known for human rights violations.

Following these and other lures, ethically minded investors are seeing signs of progress. The Calvert Foundation, for instance, began searching in late 2003 for nonprofit partners in the region to steer an initial $100,000 to fledgling, sustainable businesses. Meanwhile, more than two dozen multinational companies with interests in the region will come together, starting this weekend, in Dubai for what's been billed as the first-ever Middle East conference on corporate social responsibility.

For a bit of worldwide context, consider how the region fares in the Heritage Foundation's 2004 Index of Economic Freedom. The Index does not classify a single Middle Eastern country as "economically free" in the sense that Hong Kong, Switzerland, or the United States are. Factors weighed, including foreign investment and property rights, cast a "mostly unfree" distinction on nearly all Middle Eastern countries.

On a map, the economically freest countries are tiny blips: Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, and Israel. Saudi Arabia, the region's largest economy, is rated as far less free. And even with a gross domestic product of $142 billion, it doesn't rank high by global standards. Sweden's is more than twice as large at $300 billion.

Those aiming to invest for change in the Middle East will need to overcome a number of barriers, not the least of which concerns cultural sensitivity.

"Among socially responsible investors, there will be some who seek opportunities to make money and shape social conditions in that region," says Steve Schueth, president of First Affirmative Financial Network in Colorado Springs, Colo., an adviser to socially concerned investors. "But that drive is often [offset] by the idea that we should respect other cultures. It tends to have a neutralizing effect on the two yearnings."

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Americans have heard much about the social conditions of the Arab world. Those seeking change through investment would apparently have ample targets on their radar screens, from the sewage-strewn streets of Gaza to Saudi Arabia, where women may neither vote nor drive.

To this point, however, the only significant private capital from the West at work remaking the region has arrived through the work of companies under contract with the US government to rebuild Iraq. Investors interested in leveraging alternative influence in the region have encountered more than a few roadblocks. Example: corporate transparency. The only companies that have traditionally met Western standards for oversight and accountability in this regard have been Western companies with a presence in the region.

Drops in a bucket

Foreign direct investment in the region is tiny: just $446 million in Egypt - a fraction of the country's $81 billion economy. Pakistan tells a similar story: $317 million in direct foreign investment, a drop in the bucket for a $73 billion economy.

Private investment is limited because so many Middle Eastern companies are state-owned, according to Elliot Schrage, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

For example, in Bahrain, the freest economy in the region, more than 70 percent of revenues come from state-owned enterprises. Likewise, in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, just 25 percent of business belongs to the private sector.

Thus, short-term investment decisions, Mr. Schrage says, will not drive corporate social responsibility in the region as much as a long-term interest among companies to improve living conditions in the countries where they do business.

"The private sector is slowly recognizing that helping to address social issues in the region will benefit their bottom line over time," Schrage says, noting unemployment, pollution, and the treatment of migrant labor as top issues. "As in other regions, the private sector operating in the Middle East will first address the least culturally sensitive issues and those with the greatest benefit to their business."

Companies with headquarters or operations in the Middle East, Schrage says, are beginning to address social ills as the private sector did during the movement's infancy in North America and Europe - through philanthropy.

Attendees at the Dubai conference will in fact hear much about opportunities for funding local education and public health projects. But the notion of placing women in their own top management positions - a hallmark of socially responsible companies in the West - will not be on the agenda.

Those determined to invest for change in the Middle East will find a highly cautious approach among the multinational corporations that present themselves as beacons of social responsibility in the region. Among the leaders of the corporate social-responsibility movement are the Dubai conference's lead sponsors: Royal Dutch/Shell Companies, British American Tobacco, and McDonald's Corp. In McDonald's case, "responsibility" to date has meant being sensitive to local customs, sharing ownership with local franchisees, and donating to health clinics and hospitals in countries where the company operates restaurants.

Though these initial goals might be modest by Western standards, the region's start-ups in search of capital might hold greater promise in the long run. The Calvert Foundation hopes its microcredit enterprise will enable Middle Eastern companies to hire locally from the swelled ranks of the unemployed.

Looking for stability

Still, when potential local partners have to be screened for ties to terrorists, a stable environment to pursue social progress can seem a long way off. "In many cases, places with the greatest need become the hardest places to deploy resources," says Tim Freundlich, director of strategic development for the Calvert Foundation. To this point, even sub-Saharan Africa has been an easier place to find stable investment partners than the Middle East, he adds.

Despite the hurdles, investors with big dreams for the Middle East see private enterprise as the most promising channel. Foreign companies in the region sometimes enjoy freedom to pursue on-site what would amount to a new social order if practiced off premises. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women are forbidden to drive themselves to work, but those employed by Exxon or other multinational corporations enjoy dispensation to wield managerial authority on the job, according to Tim Smith, president of the Social Investment Forum, an investors' association in Washington, D.C.

"There's a lot of pressure on bigger companies to be good global citizens," Mr. Smith says. "Many of these companies increasingly are making commitments to live up to international standards, wherever they may be doing business."

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