19 February 2014

North Africa: Maghreb Entrepreneurs Eye Common Market

Marrakech — Over 600 business and financial figures from across North Africa met in Marrakech February 17th-18th for the third Maghreb Entrepreneurs' Forum.

The goal of the gathering, which was held at the prompting of the General Confederation of Moroccan Enterprises (CGEM) and its Maghreb Employers' Union (UME), was to re-launch the economic integration of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) through the efforts of the private sector.

The region currently faces multiple economic and security challenges, hence the "urgent need to boost economic and commercial exchange", Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) Secretary-General Habib Ben Yahia told Magharebia on the side-lines of the meeting.

During his speech, Moroccan Prime Minister Abdeliliah Benkirane said that "the UMA exists geographically, culturally and even economically thanks to investors who, despite the political obstacles, have dared to invest in a Maghreb nation other than their country of origin, but the desired economic integration that the people of the Maghreb aspire to remains out of reach."

Miriem Bensaleh, the president of the Moroccan employers' association, pointed out that the role of business actors was not to re-launch the union, "but to create forums for economic exchange, a regional market and an ecosystem capable of creating employment for young people, added value and wealth".

IMF chief Christine Lagarde urged Maghreb states to discuss economic integration in more depth "in order to address young people's expectations".

She added that it was high time for the Maghreb to adopt a regional investment code and customs regulations "to enable formal trade to take over from informal trade".

Simon Gray, the head of the World Bank's Maghreb department, lamented the lack of economic integration across the region, saying it was responsible for the unemployment of thousands of young people.

"Studies conducted by the World Bank show that the loss of earnings due to the lack of Maghreb integration is estimated at 3 to 9 billion dollars per annum for the region as a whole," he said.

Hicham Loumi, the Tunisian president of a group that specialises in automotive wiring and has been based in Tangier for 10 years, underlined the importance of streamlining administrative procedures for investors.

The Libyan CEO of an agrifood group, Mohamed Abdulkarim Raied, said that a good business climate was encouraging many Libyans to invest in a Maghreb nation. Ahmed Youra Hay, a consultant who works for the National Union of Employers' Associations in Mauritania, recommended that the excessive cost and time necessary to export goods should be reduced and that a single customs declaration model should be adopted.

After two days of discussions and exchange, the participants came up with a set of recommendations including the need to speed up the creation of the integrated Maghreb economic area and make free trade possible by signing the draft Inter-Maghreb Free Trade Agreement.

They also recommended speeding up the creation of the Maghreb Investment and External Trade Bank, whose incorporation meeting is expected to take place by the end of 2014.

In addition to creating a single Maghreb energy market, the participants also recommended developing regional industry in order to create employment, stimulate growth and foster a culture of innovation among young people.

However, citizens of the Maghreb have different opinions about economic integration.

Sliman Saidi, a waiter in a hotel, said that the union was "a good thing for the countries of the Maghreb, but it still isn't up and running".

"The Maghreb nations are missing out on economic development because of pointless political issues that are of no interest to the population of the Maghreb," remarked Badra Salmi, a company receptionist.

Moustafa Alaidi, a young public relations trainee, said that for as long as there were political problems between Morocco and Algeria, any attempt to achieve integration would be doomed to failure: "We need to start with politics if we want to build a Maghreb on solid foundations."

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