Israel and Qatar signs oil deal from Amman confab

JERUSALEM — The three-day Middle East and North African Economic Summit in the Jordanian capital of Amman generated Israel's first major business contract with a Persian Gulf state.

The Amman gathering, with the slogan "The Middle East is Open for Business," drew nearly 2,000 government officials and business leaders from 60 nations for meetings aimed at promoting regional development.

A business summit in Casablanca, Morocco, one year ago was largely ceremonial. Israelis and Arab businesspeople mingled openly for the first time then.

But this year, the emphasis turned to planning for cooperative projects and making business deals.

One dramatic change: the signing of an agreement by which Qatar would sell $2 billion worth of natural gas to Israel via the American energy company Enron.

Under the memorandum of understanding, Enron will extract the gas from Qatari oil fields and begin delivering some 5 million tons to Israel in the year 2001. The gas will initially be delivered by tanker, but officials said gas may ultimately be funneled via a pipeline linking Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.

Israel's Energy Minister Gonen Segev, alluding to his country's lack of diplomatic ties with Qatar, said the deal had bypassed politics. He predicted the countries will soon establish formal ties.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel and Qatar are "building an economic peace, and not just a political one."

The summit produced other deals as well. Summit delegates agreed on the creation of a regional development bank, a U.S.-backed idea first floated a year ago in Casablanca.

The bank, expected to have $5 billion in initial capitalization to fund regional projects, will be based in Cairo.

France and other European nations opposed the idea, saying they preferred other lending channels. Saudi Arabia also said it feared that much of the bank's funds would fund Israeli projects.

Summit delegates proposed projects totaling more than $50 billion.

Israel outlined more than 200 projects — including new rail lines, an international airport near Eilat and a $20 billion tourist "Riviera" on Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian soil near the Gulf of Eilat.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who attended the summit with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, also called for private investment in the region as Western donor nations face tighter domestic budgets.

The summit's organizers acknowledged the summit may have yielded more wish lists than hard deals. But they hoped next year's meeting, set for Cairo, will generate more contracts.

While 120 Israeli government officials and businesspeople went to Amman, Israel's presence was muted compared to the nearly 600 who visited Casablanca. After the first summit, some Arab officials said they felt Israel aimed to dominate the Arab world financially.

Israeli businessmen who did not go to Amman attended a simultaneous conference in Jerusalem.