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US-Arab Economic Forum Opens in Houston

Leaders and senior officials from numerous Arab nations are in Houston for the US-Arab Economic Forum, which runs there through Wednesday. Top executives from several large American corporations are also on hand, along with diplomats and other U.S. government officials.

There are some 800 participants in this second US-Arab Economic Forum. They are gathered at the convention center in downtown Houston to discuss everything from prospects for peace in the Middle East to the development of economic relations that go beyond oil and gas projects.

State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes spoke at one of the opening sessions, Monday. She centered on how increased dialogue between the United States and Arab nations could help in the fight against those in the Arab world who advocate terrorism.

"Together, we must undermine the extremists by providing platforms for debate, by empowering mainstream voices of tolerance and inclusion and by demonstrating respect for Muslim cultures and contributions to our society and world society," Hughes said.

Ambassador Hughes said Arab-Americans can serve as a bridge between this country and the Arab world, to promote mutual understanding.

One of the forum organizers, Ismael Ahmed, says that was a principle idea behind the forum, which started in Detroit three years ago. He says he and other Arab-Americans can help bridge the gap between the cultures, but that attitudes must change on both sides.

"We ask the Arab world to believe in us and support these efforts," he said. "We ask Arab-Americans not to give up the fight, to come together and try to change America and the way it looks at the Arab world."

One key issue at this meeting is economic development and the role it could play in advancing the economies of countries in the Middle East. A number of large oil companies are playing a prominent role here, but much of the focus is on developing economies in the Arab nations that go beyond energy.

Saudi Arabia's Minister of State, Abdullah Zainal Alireza, outlined plans for his nation to build a more diversified economy and to promote regional trade.

"One of our biggest problems in the Arab world has been that there is no intra-Arab trade and (we are) hoping that Saudi Arabia will act as the engine of growth for the whole of the Arab world, much as Germany did for Europe," Alireza said.

Arab-American leaders and the representatives of Arab countries here agree that both the United States and the Arab world would benefit from greater economic cooperation and trade. But Arab-American relations have been strained since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Forum organizers say some 100 contracts, worth more than one trillion dollars, were awarded to foreign companies from the Arab world, last year, and only two went to American companies.

Organizers say they chose Houston for this forum because of its ties to the Middle East, through the energy industry, and because of the 65,000 Arab-Americans who live in the Houston area. They note that Houston's Arab community features a large number of professionals and successful entrepreneurs.