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California Program Promotes Entrepreneurship in Mideast, North Africa


Entrepreneurs from the Middle East and North Africa are honing their business skills with the help of a U.S. program designed to promote the economy of the region. Mike O'Sullivan reports from San Diego, California, where 35 business leaders, more than one-third of them women, took part in the Middle East Entrepreneur Training Program.

The participants came from 15 countries ranging from Iraq to Tunisia to hear talks by business professors and visit corporations in this economic hub of Southern California.

Rob Fuller is director of Entrepreneurial Programs for the Beyster Institute at the University of California, San Diego. The institute operates the Middle East program under a grant from the U.S. State Department.

Mr. Fuller says seminar topics include management techniques, managerial skills and business values, including such issues as financial openness and copyrights. He says some participants come from countries where these themes are emphasized.

"They've worked very hard in the last few years to develop intellectual property rights laws, to protect the intellectual property of foreign companies that are coming in, others where it is still pretty much unknown," he explains. "And so part of the change element of this program is to introduce those concepts, not from a U.S. perspective, but from their trading partners in the region."

These are multilingual meetings, with proceedings translated into French and Arabic.

Many participants have built their business from the ground up, like Bouthayna Iraqui-Houssaini, a woman entrepreneur from Morocco.

"At first, I am a pharmacist," she notes. "I had a Ph.D. in pharmacy from France, from Paris. And when I came back to Morocco, I had my own pharmacy. And afterward, I started a business."

Her company, Locamed Service, rents orthopedic supplies and custom-manufactures artificial limbs. She also heads the Rabat chapter of a Moroccan association of women in business.

"Now we are about 200. It's not too much, but they're all success stories," she says.

Hanan Saab, a woman from Lebanon, is managing director of a pharmaceutical and medical supplies firm called Pharmamed. She says her country has recovered from a brutal civil war, and finds strength in its mix of cultures and religions.

"You learn a lot from such a culture," she explains. "I believe that part of the success of the Lebanese people in entrepreneurship or in other areas is based on the fact that they have been exposed to different religions, and they have learned about each other, and they have learned to really live together and accept."

Participants were offered the chance to talk about their companies and their countries. Nedal Mahmoud Alzatari is general manager of Energy Management Services in Jordan.

"We have the longest border with Israel and the West Bank…" he notes.

As Mr. Alzatari spoke of Jordan's strategic location, he and others described a region with falling trade barriers and a generation of young people who want to do business. They say regional leaders are working to bring in investment.

Khalid Al-Khateb of the Bahrain and Kuwaiti bank says by locating in Bahrain, international businesses gain access to all six member-nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The trade group includes Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. Mr. Al-Khateb says Bahrain is politically stable, with strong laws to protect a foreign investor.

"He can come to Bahrain, establish his business with very minimum cost, and he can penetrate the GCC countries and the Arab world," he says. "I call it, like an octopus or a spider, you can go around and you can push around everywhere."

The Beyster Institute's Rob Fuller says this group includes some of the most dynamic business leaders and senior managers in the region. They were selected from among an initial group of 1,800, which was winnowed to 180 finalists. He says in San Diego, they have acquired tips and pointers, and made informal contacts.

"It's been a very educational process because not all of the learning is coming from the instructor standing at the front the classroom," he points out. "There's a lot of sharing going on in the training sessions and also outside the training sessions."

The Middle East Entrepreneurship Training program aims to create jobs and promote development in the region. It will continue its programs next year, when groups of mid-level managers in information technology and business services will come to San Diego. The program will also sponsor two conferences in Tunisia, one for women in business.

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