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Leaders urge Mideast trade and investment

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DETROIT — Business and political leaders from the United States and Arab countries say increased trade and investment must continue despite uncertainty about the future of Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

The leaders on Monday highlighted the opportunities that exist selling to hundreds of millions of consumers in the region and said more long-term commitments from U.S. businesses are needed. But they noted that peace as a foundation for economic growth remains an elusive goal, during the second day of the three-day U.S.-Arab Economic Forum.

Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive Carly Fiorina said public-private partnerships will be important in fostering economic development and trade with the region. And she challenged Arab states to give women the same rights as men.

"Why would the Arab world with such an incredible asset leave that asset on the shelf?" Fiorina asked. "Women have to be a part of the larger equation. The most successful societies are those that are the most inclusive."

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the Bush administration is committed to strengthening alliances with oil-producing nations and ensuring secure energy supplies.

That will mean investment abroad as well as promoting domestic energy production, he said.

"America will ... continue to be more than just a major consumer of Middle East petroleum," he said. "We will be both a partner and investor as well."

The three-day U.S.-Arab Economic Forum closes Tuesday after another round of panel discussions. In addition to economic development, participants are examining issues such as education in the Arab world, diversity and the empowerment of women.

The event drew about 1,000 participants, including Arab leaders from Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere, along with top executives of Fortune 500 companies.

In a speech Monday night, Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the importance of peace in the Middle East to global stability. And he asked those at the forum to support the United States' efforts to rebuild Iraq and ease Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

"I have come to ask you to help build a new Middle East, a Middle East peaceful, prosperous. A Middle East that is free," Powell said. "We face no task more important."

Detroit was chosen as the host city because it and the suburb of Dearborn are home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of people with roots in the Middle East. An estimated 300,000 Arab-Americans live in the area.

Many of the discussions focused on bringing U.S. companies to the Middle East, drawing investment into the region and partnering with Arab entrepreneurs.

Lee R. Raymond, chairman and chief executive of Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp., said he expects between $400 billion and $500 billion in investment will be needed in the Middle East over the next 15 years to meet demand. He said that presents an opportunity for Arab nations and businesses.

But some participants noted that Arab exports must be diversified.

"Expanding trade beyond oil can be one of the greatest positive forces for development," said ChevronTexaco Corp. chairman David O'Reilly. "And while oil has been a boon to the Arab economies, there is still too much reliance on it — and not enough diversification into a broader range of economic activity."

The conference has been criticized by some for its timing, but Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and others at the forum brushed off such critiques.

"There is no better time to do it than now," Kilpatrick said. "There is separation, war, discrimination all over the world. We're showing the world today that we can work together, we can stay focused and we can talk about serious issues."